AND, NO, THAT'S NOT MELANIE'S FACE, EITHER - VHS FILES PODCAST ON 'BODY DOUBLE'
Excerpt from the 1992 book American Mythologies by Marshall Blonsky:
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a la Mod:
Alternately conniving and seductive, the ensuing power dance between these two master manipulators puts “Nightmare Alley” right up there with “Sunset Boulevard” (with its sordid battle of the sexes), “There Will Be Blood” (where commerce clashes with religion) and other period studies of opposing forces. And true to the cynical essence of the noir genre, both sides are shown to be equally corrupt: The way Stan sees it, he and Lilith are in the same racket, leveraging what they know about the universal pillars of human desire — health, wealth, love — to give their customers false hope. “Fear is the key to human nature,” as Gresham observed, and both psychiatrists and spiritualists exploit it in their way (religion does too, though del Toro downplays that most damning dimension of Gresham’s critique).
Back at the carnival, Pete had advised Stan to steer clear of “spook shows,” where a mentalist pretends to commune with the dead. But Stan’s fatal flaw — the one most likely to trip him up — comes in the way this slick talker tries to compensate for his own sense of inadequacy by convincing himself that he’s superior to everyone else. A sworn teetotaler, Stan dismisses Pete as a drunk and figures he can fool gullible strangers into paying to speak with their dead lovers, sons and so forth. (Enter Richard Jenkins as a deeply damaged man with all the money in the world, looking to buy some peace of mind.) By the end, however, he’s hooked on booze and haunted by visions of his dead father — the nightmare alley of the film’s title.
There are few things more dangerous than a con man who believes his own spiel, and here, del Toro takes that dynamic to its inevitable conclusion. Once things escalate, the director can hardly resist a bit of the old ultra-violence — a weakness that infects nearly all his films, as he insists on pushing our faces into the gory, bone-crunching consequences of his characters’ behavior. He darkens some of the details from the book, so that the culprits “deserve” what’s coming to them, but for most audiences, the sight of mangled faces will be too much, especially after all the magnificent visuals del Toro and his creative team — especially DP Dan Laustsen, production designer Tamara Deverell and costume designer Luis Sequeira — have provided.
From re-creating a vintage circus with its pickled animal fetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners to evoking the stratospheric heights to which this social climber aspires, the movie ranks as the most stunning modern noir to behold since Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” Dark as del Toro’s vision may be, it’s a glorious homage to an American experience all but lost to time. For centuries, carnivals of some kind offered an exotic alternative to small-town life, as customers willingly sacrificed their quarters for illicit thrills. And now that experience lives on, immortalized in a cautionary tale for the ages, its arc an elegant full circle, like the giant Ferris wheel that signals from afar that something wicked this way comes.
In the interview, Lieberman brings up Brian De Palma While discussing Blue Sunshine:
You just mentioned that BLUE SUNSHINE was compared to Cronenberg. I can see that. But when you made the film, was that something you were aware of?
No, because at the time I didn’t even see his movies. I saw SCANNERS. That’s the only one I saw. At that time there was only one filmmaker that worked in the genre that I even paid attention to and was impressed by. That was Brian De Palma. There wasn’t even a number two or three. I thought he was a genius. He was constantly being criticized for trying to be Hitchcock and I remember thinking about that when I learned filmmaking. I knew what it took to do what he does. Yeah, he was influenced by Hitchcock but his personality is in everything he does. Hitchcock never used the camera the way De Palma did, never had that incredibly vicious wit about everything he did. De Palma got really slick. And then after CARRIE he became mainstream Hollywood – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I can’t think of anybody working in the genre that had that kind of mastery that De Palma has and it’s strange that nobody even talks about it. John Carpenter and Wes Craven are not even in his league. It’s a whole different level.
If De Palma has one weakness it’s that he was too dependent on the material. I don’t care how good a filmmaker you are, you have to marry yourself to the material. I have the advantage of being a writer. If I didn’t write, how am I going to use my directing skills on a piece of material like SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER? What I want to express as a director goes hand in hand with what I want to express as a writer. I can’t find that out there. I wish I could, because writing is a bitch.
When watching De Palma’s movies while you were learning the craft yourself, did you want to make movies the way he did?
Yes, I did. I didn’t copy anything – I have enough of my own ideas – but there’s something in the adventurous spirit in the way he made films that I found very inspirational. Also the way he found humor in places where you never before thought you’d find it. He did that again and again. Even in SCARFACE you have that scene with the chainsaw in the bathroom. Any filmmaker would move the camera away from that, because you hear the chainsaw, you hear the screaming. There’s no need to show it. Let the imagination of the audience do the work. That’s pretty much how I would shoot it. But De Palma – and this is signature him – goes: Yeah, that’s what you think, but we’re going back in! That’s what I’m talking about. That is fucking brilliant! When I saw that, I thought: This guy hasn’t lost anything. At the time I wished he would just do horror movies and show everybody else his level. He was so fresh and incredible.
Before you made your debut with SQUIRM, did you have any film experience?
Yeah, I made SQUIRM when I was twenty-five. But the first film I ever did was called THE RINGER. It’s on the DVD of BLUE SUNSHINE as an extra. It’s a twenty minute short. I’m in it. It was the film that got me a job at Janus Films, an American distributor that was mainly founded on all the early Bergman and Truffaut movies. So, I got to see all the movies by Vittorio De Sica and Antonioni. When I saw BLOW-UP I knew I wanted to make movies. Before that I thought I was going to be a commercial artist. I went to art school, doing painting and drawing. I had no interest in movies when I was a kid, aside from the stuff all kids like. Monster movies at the Saturday matinee. But I never thought I wanted to make films until I saw BLOW-UP. You remember that one sequence in BLOW-UP where you just have the trees in the wind? That one sequence was like taking drugs, without taking drugs. Using sound and visuals in such a way that is exactly like a drug experience. That’s what made me want to make films.
You had some drug experience yourself back then?
It was the sixties. It was foremost in my mind, what LSD did and what other drugs would do, altering your reality. But hallucinations held no interest for me. To me it was all about heightening reality, seeing clearer. Reality is right in front of you. So, if you could project something without taking drugs, that would certainly be better. And with film you could do anything you want. That one sequence in BLOW-UP has no music. If you watch JUST BEFORE DAWN there are so many sequences with no music at all, where you just hear cicadas and the wind. That was me in my BLOW-UP mode. Brad Fiedel, who became a huge film composer, didn’t fight me on that. He got it and he complimented me on the way I used his music.
The FIRST EVER Midnight Mass Podcast screening is coming soon, Dec. 15th at @roxie_theater!!! Don’t miss this rare and special screening of Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock opus, THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE! Join your hosts Peaches Christ & Michael Varrati for a stage-show version & recording of their Midnight Mass cult movie podcast before a rare screening of the film like you’ve never seen it before. To help them best delve into the psychotronic, Faustian world of this masterpiece they’ve invited Trixxie Carr to do a live performance. They’ll also be joined by the Phantom Mayor himself Ari Kahan, curator of The Swan Archives, which has been dedicated to the preservation of PHANTOM history since nearly the beginning. Ari will share an incredible slide-show presentation! And please don’t forget to DRESS UP for the glam rock lip-synch competition! Tickets are now on sale at ROXIE.com
Donaggio was celebrated in Venice the night before his birthday at Rossini Cinema. The evening was to begin by retracing "the life, career and music of the great composer, in a conversation that will also be an opportunity to present the book Come sinfonia (Baldini + Castoldi, 2021), a biography released in October, written jointly by the same Pino Donaggio with Anton Giulio Mancino." Afterward, there was a screening of the 2020 film The Big Step. According to the Rossini Cinema description, it is "the latest film set to music by Pino Donaggio, the story of two distant and unlikely brothers capable of dreaming and taking a big step towards the Moon."
Meanwhile, at Rolling Stone, Luca Barnabe reviews the Donaggio book in an article with the headline, "Pino Donaggio, an eighty-year long symphony" -- here's a Google-assisted translation:
Mr. Brian De Palma has no doubts: "The Blow Out score is my favorite. The main theme is very moving, especially the music on the credits, after the fade out with John (Travolta, ed.) covering his ears." That is only a hyper-cinematographic fragment, as well as hyper-musical, taken from the book Come sinfonia by Pino Donaggio and Antongiulio Mancino (ed. Baldini + Castoldi). That is the fresco of a life in music, a life in cinematographic art, but not only.
"Up there I hear the angels singing for us, sweetly / it's a song made of happiness" recited Donaggio - who turns eighty on November 24 - in the famous single Come symphony, also interpreted by Mina. It almost seems that the angels really played a decisive role in the life of the musician. "A film critic friend of Brian (De Palma, ed.), passing from London to the airport, had seen, bought and brought to America the LP of Don't Look Now […] Brian had exposed the problems he was encountering in finding a viable replacement for Bernard Herrmann. And his friend: "Look, when I got back from London I took the Don’t Look Now record. It is from a new composer ”. […] Why do I always talk about destiny? That copy will have been one of the last in circulation, because in the meantime the English record company had also gone bankrupt."
This is just the beginning of one of the most significant musician-director collaborations in the history of cinema, Pino Donaggio-Brian De Palma, which would begin with Carrie (1976) and continued for eight films, to date, with Domino (2019), passing through such masterpieces as Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984)... That journalist who, thanks to fate (the angels?), found Donaggio's score for Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), was Jay Cocks, film critic for the weekly Time magazine at the time, then Scorsese's co-screenwriter.
As a symphony, it is a work-river of heartfelt, chiseled pages, full of plots, sub-plots and anecdotes. On the first score for De Palma, the musician recalls how the scene at the cemetery on Carrie's grave made "George Lucas jump out of his chair during a screening". Donaggio-Mancino's book is many things together, just like the artist at the center of the story, composer, violinist, songwriter, singer. It is a short story, a symphony in words (consisting of an introduction / overture and four chapters / movements), an essay on music and cinema, an adventure novel, autobiography and biography. The childhood of a brat in the Venetian streets, until today.
Donaggio is spoken of in the third person, as the protagonist of a novel of an incredible and "cinema" life. His speech is carried over between narratives and passions, from adolescence to pandemic contemporaneity. A flow of consciousness in words, fragments of dialogue between Donaggio and Mancino, defined by the musician as "one who doesn't understand anything about Venice." Monologues by Pino and scraps of old writings. An email from De Palma to Donaggio in which the director notes: "You write enchanting melodies, sensual music, suspense and simple heartbreaking emotional phrases that bring tears to the eyes of the spectators. You also know how to shock and amaze an audience. Together, we have always found the ideal piece of music to accompany my elaborate sets."
The style of the text, like the artist's musical one, is at the same time melodic, destabilizing, precise and dissimilar to the contemporary, at times baroque, poetic, poignant. Obviously, it is not limited to the scores for De Palma, but contains the whole range of experiences and personal works. From training (family of musicians) to private life, from pop songwriting (memorable songs, like Io che non vivo, brought to Sanremo in the 1960s) to pieces reinterpreted by others like Jannacci (Mario) and Mina, up to cinema.
A long list of hits: the surprising and experimental score for Don't Look Now, the collaboration with Dario Argento (Two Evil Eyes, Trauma), Nothing Left To Do But Cry for Benigni and Troisi, Don Camillo and the incredible popularity of the melody Why for Terence Hill, Così fan tutte for Tinto Brass, up to Don Matteo again with Terence. Donaggio seems to have plowed with the same professionalism in popular and author cinema, exactly as he has never made distinctions between classical music and songs since he was a child - in a family of musicians.
Hill himself writes in the short but poetic preface to the text: "The undisputed quality of this composer is known to all. The public's affection for Don Matteo is due to the sensitivity and depth of his music. It transports the viewer into a rarefied world where the desire for the transcendent becomes, even if only for a moment, a reality." To say it with Pino's mother, perhaps the fundamental teaching in life, perhaps to find the help of fate or angels, is: "Butite nel mar grando!" [Throw yourself into the great sea!]
“Bernard Herrmann had recently died and Brian didn't want the usual Hollywood musicians. A friend of his played that soundtrack of mine and the spark went off. Editor Paul Hirsch called me, who spoke Italian and who shortly after would win the Oscar for Star Wars. I didn't speak a word of English at the time, but I remembered my mother saying: "Butite nel mar grando" ("Throw yourself into the big sea", in Venetian, ed). I threw myself. There was an affinity with Brian from the start. I understood what music he wanted and went back to Venice. He heard the music only in the recording studio."
1979: Veteran and playwright David Rabe attempts to resuscitate the project and goes to see De Palma, who had taken an early interest in Lang's story, when he was just an underground filmmaker unknown to the battalion. But it will take a few more years and a favorable alignment of the planets for the endeavor to succeed. 1987: two Vietnam films, Full Metal Jacket and above all Platoon, have just hit the box office, and De Palma is himself crowned with the triumph of the Untouchables, which places him in a position of strength in Hollywood. But this is not enough. To pass the pill of such a depressing and controversial project (to the point that the startled Paramount withdrew in favor of Columbia), you need a huge star. Luckily, Michael J. Fox, the youth idol since Back to the Future and the Family Ties series, is looking for more serious roles than he is usually offered. A simple reading of the script (written by Rabe) convinces him: Eriksson, it will be him. To play his nemesis, Sergeant Meserve, producer Art Linson debauchery Sean Penn, best known at the time for his escapades with his companion Madonna that made the tabloids cabbage. A few youngsters, real blue screen dicks, complete the cast: Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo. It remains to find the girl. De Palma absolutely insists that she be Vietnamese, and not Thai or Filipino, for example. He goes around the world to finally find her in Paris. Her name is Thuy Thu Le, she is a student and sees an advertisement. She shows up for the audition and it is immediately overwhelming. Outrages will be her only film.
De Palma pushes the sliders of realism far. There is no question of reconstructing Vietnam in the Hollywood jungle of the studios. But it's 1988, and Vietnam itself is still not an option. So, go to Thailand, where an entire village is created from scratch. For the jungle scenes, the team sets up in an open pit, deep in the forest, with water ramps for the rain. While the technical team is busy, the actors are not to be outdone. Because you don't improvise yourself as a soldier, if only for the beautiful eye of a camera. Under the guidance of two Vietnam veterans, they undergo intensive training and learn to behave like a real patrol. For two weeks before filming begins, they eat C rations (the soldier's individual ration: canned fast food), take long walks through the forest carrying heavy M- machine guns. 60 or grenade launchers, learn to disassemble and reassemble their rifles. Problem: One of the instructors quickly turns out to be a berserk, the type who sets up assault simulations in the middle of the night, in corners infested with snakes. Even Sean Penn, even the most invested of the troop, ends up answering him: "Are you not a little sick? This is a movie we're making, not the war. The dingo is quickly replaced by Dale Dye, another veteran who also plays Captain Hill in the film. The experience helps to create bonds between the actors, to strengthen their sense of belonging to a group, but also to give everyone a place in this group, the one they will occupy in the film. Each becomes his character.
In full delirium Actors Studio, Sean Penn plays the game thoroughly, even if it means behaving like a bastard with everyone. It has to look true on screen. Poor John Leguizamo bears the brunt in a scene where, take after take, Sean slaps him heavily - for real, then. After the thirteenth take, Leguizamo begins to see candles. But, of course, it's Michael J. Fox who suffers the most from the Sean Penn "method", who doesn't speak to him. Never. Even outside filming hours: in the hotel restaurant, he sits at another table. The rest of the time he trains or spends some time with "his" soldiers. For the purposes of a scene where Fox has to act out anger, he goes so far as to stick a straight right before the take. "Sean treated him like crap," producer Art Linson will say. As for the famous trial scene where Penn whispers something inaudible in Fox's ear, De Palma says the actor horrors him with every take. Like, "I fucked your wife a few times and now it's gonna be your turn. "At the end of the shoot, Fox will send him a note:" I wouldn't say it was a pleasure, but that it was a privilege. "
The shooting is extremely trying, especially the jungle scenes. First there is the climate, the tropical heat which is around 50 degrees, the sun beating down hard, when it's not the torrential rain ... Enough to cause a lot of delay and put everyone on the edge. To wait between takes, while De Palma perfects one of his super-sophisticated camera moves that are his specialty, the actors brutalize themselves with a questionable local beer. It takes a month to get the first night fight scene canned, with one shoot every night. To make matters worse, poisonous insects and snakes are present. Sometimes someone yells "Cobra !! And the tray is cleared while specialists take care of the intruder. Under these conditions, anyone ends up getting sick one day or another. Michael J. Fox vomits almost after every dose, has a colic and ends up in the hospital coughing up blood. Everyone has one desire: to go home, to their country. We count the days. It may only be a movie, but you end up believing it. As Fox says, “I wouldn't say I'm a Method actor, but after 60 days in the jungle you hate everyone and want to get the hell out of here."
Andra Akers and Margo Norton browse the racks and try on dresses at Paraphernalia and other NYC boutiques while discussing men and love in 'Murder à la Mod,' 1968. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, 'Murder à la Mod' is Brian De Palma's solo directional debut and was thought lost for decades, until it was rediscovered ten years ago. With it's all-white interior, Paraphernalia was “a determinedly with-it New York boutique” (in the words of Mademoiselle magazine) that opened in September 1965 with backing from the mass-merchandiser Puritan Fashions (who was also responsible for launching Mary Quant on to the American fashion scene with their Youthquake concept). Located on Madison Avenue between 66th and 67th streets, Paraphernalia was really the first of its kind—a boutique that displayed clothes like an art gallery, all sleek chrome surfaces and hip salesgirls. Ulrich Franzen designed the interior, while the clothes were designed for the in-house label by all the hippest young designers—the first cohort included Deanna Littel, Carol Friedland, Joel Schumacher, and 23-year-old Betsey Johnson, while later Dimitri Kritsas, Michael Mott, Elisa Stone, and Diana Dew all designed for the label. It’s unique situation—money, support and the manufacturing capabilities of the mass-market—allowed Paraphernalia designers to create truly avant-garde designs from plastic, metal, and paper, along with ones that lit up, at the same time as keeping all prices under $99. For a couple of years Paraphernalia was the place to shop and be seen—the Velvet Underground played the opening and Warhol's stars often picked up a new outfit on their way out for the night. Unfortunately the desire to keep prices down forced the production of more clothes and the franchising of stores, leading to an oversaturation of the market and a diffusion of the brand name—by the mid-70s Paraphernalia was no more. It's always exciting to come across these legendary boutiques on film, especially when shot in an unstaged, guerrilla manner such as this. I don't know the name of the other boutique(s) they visit, so if anyone recognizes them please let me know. 🖤🤍🖤
On October 30th, McLaws Helms posted clips from the cemetery sequence in De Palma's film, with this description:
Andra Akers and a mysterious trunk collide in Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City, in Brian De Palma's solo directional debut ‘Murder à la Mod', 1968. Released in only one cinema in NYC at the time, this film was thought lost for decades and only found again ten years ago—if you are a fan of De Palma this film is definitely worth a watch as it lays out so many of the stylistic, technical and thematic fixations that have defined his later films ('Carrie' et al). Her outfit is really the crème de la crème of mod fashion, though I'll post the best fashion clip from this movie in a few days. 🖤🤍🖤