DE PALMA'S CINEMATIC FANTASIA WAS RELASED IN U.S. THEATERS ON NOVEMBER 6, 2002
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Just in case this is necessary, spoilers for the biopic parody "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" lie ahead. You've been warned?
If there's one thing "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" does well, it's a parody. Weird Al rose to fame performing hilarious takes on hit pop songs, like his version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," titled "Eat It," and Yankovic's biopic remains true to the comedic sensibility of his work. The film pokes fun at the musical biopic genre as a whole and pays homage to lots of iconic music, artists, and cinema that broke the status quo.
One final pop culture reference is snuck in at the very end of the film. The end of "Weird" mirrors the final scene in Brian De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie," with the role of Sue played by the infamous musician-turned-drug lord, Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood).
Based on a total (un)true story
"Weird" tells the totally true life story of the comedy musician Al Yankovic — just kidding! What fun would that be? "Weird" is actually closer to "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" than it is to musical biopics like Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis." The film's narrative is almost completely fabricated, from Yankovic's tragic backstory as a closet accordion player to his showdown with Pablo Escobar. Some true aspects did make the final cut, like how Yankovic got his first accordion. Other elements were used for comedic effect, like Weird Al's songs, which were played in their originally recorded versions. "One of the many musical biopic tropes we wanted to take the piss out of was the clearly different voice coming out of the actor's head," Daniel Radcliffe explained to The Tonight Show.
Yankovic himself confirmed that a few parts of the biopic are accurate. "There are little nuggets of truth sprinkled throughout the biopic," Yankovic admitted. However, his whirlwind romance with Madonna was not one of them.
Madonna and Yankovic never came close to dating in real life. "Our relationship was platonic," the musician admitted. "The only time I actually met her was in 1985. I talked to her for maybe 45 seconds backstage." Their relationship in the "Weird" universe lasts a lot longer than 45 seconds, however. In fact, Madonna becomes a crucial part of Al's life — and his death.
An homage to Carrie gives Weird a campy send-off
In the "Weird" universe, Al dies in 1985, the same year he met Madonna in real life. A mid-credits scene shows a grief-stricken Madonna placing a rose on his grave. Just like the end of "Carrie," Al's hand pops out of the ground, and tries to drag Madonna down with him. This scene in "Weird" is similar to Brian De Palma's classic on more than just a surface level. Al's assassination at the award show mirrors the scene in "Carrie" where the titular protagonist wins prom queen and is showered in pig's blood. Of course, Madonna played a much bigger hand in Al's death than Sue played in Carrie's.
Seven years ago in a caravan in west Berlin, Joe and Anthony Russo were waxing lyrical to me about Francois Truffaut. I was visiting the set of Captain America: Civil War, and the brothers – two sitcom-circuit veterans who’d been hand-picked to direct the previous Captain America film by Marvel boss Kevin Feige – were keen to stress their cinephile credentials.
Their current venture, Joe stressed, was “very influenced by a lot of European cinema. Truffaut is our favourite director. Shoot the Piano Player is probably our favourite movie.”
“We love absurdism, but especially when it’s married to a sense of realism and drama,” added Anthony, adding that they’d also been guided by their admiration for William Friedkin and Brian De Palma, while The Godfather was a Christmas staple at their house. A few years later while doing press for Avengers: Endgame, they were hymning Michelangelo Antonioni, telling Indiewire that the psychological charge of that film’s backdrops had been influenced by the Italian’s 1964 existential masterpiece Red Desert.
How much Truffaut and Antonioni are actually detectable in All-Star Smashy Bang Boom 4 is up for discussion, but even so, it’s hard not to love this sort of interview gambit. At the very least, it’s humanising – it proves the subjects aren’t automatons or cynics, and that their ideas started life in a special place.
There’s quite some distance between these sunny exchanges and the blood-freezing horror of the brothers’ conversation with Variety published earlier this week. Here we learned that cinema in its current form is in terminal decline, the future of screen performance is AI-powered deepfakes, and the Hollywood musical de nos jours is Guy Ritchie riffing on TikTok.
“We’re futurists,” Anthony told the magazine, while Joe detailed a filmmaking philosophy that involved “stretch[ing] the limits of IP” – that is, intellectual property, which means pre-existing characters and franchises. In terms of one of their forthcoming projects – Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Disney’s Hercules, which the Russos are producing – that means taking a creative cue from TikTok dances, as opposed to the 1930s screwball romances which influenced the original 1997 animation, by John Musker and Ron Clements.
Will this have the crowds jigging in the aisles? Who cares? Generation Z “don’t have the same emotional connection to watching things in a theatre,” they went on, suggesting the theatrical business peaked with their Avengers films: “It will never happen again,” Joe predicted, before describing an apparently desirable scenario in which audiences at home can interrupt actors mid-flow – or rather their digitally conscious CG doppelgängers – to ask them for behind-the-scenes tidbits.
I’m not suggesting the Avengers: Endgame directors’ prophecies won’t come to pass, but they’re infinitely more depressing than anything Thanos ever did. Bizarrely heedless, too. You might imagine that two of the men behind the second and fifth most commercially successful films of all time might recognise the enduring value of the communal film-watching experience. But no. Apparently that’s on the way out, with the art-house scene bound for extinction first (presumably the same art-house scene on which Everything Everywhere All At Once, produced by Messrs J and A Russo, just made $100 million worldwide).
Clearly in Hollywood such talk sounds desperately innovative, since every studio with money to burn is currently setting light to wheelbarrows of the stuff at the Russos’ feet. In addition to Hercules for Disney, they’re working on a sequel to The Gray Man and a sci-fi blockbuster called The Electric State for Netflix; and for Amazon, a multi-strand spy serial called Citadel with spin-off seasons made in Italy and India, as well as a series-length reboot of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
But to these ears, it just sounds like jadedness – perhaps tinged with guilt over the way their Avengers films made the theatrical side of the business so much more homogenised and risk-averse. It’s also hard to square with the reality of the Russos’ own post-Marvel work to date. Were Cherry and The Gray Man bold steps into the cinematic unknown? Because they looked respectively more like an unpersuasive Oscar grab and an off-brand Mission: Impossible, both built primarily to plug gaps in streaming services’ slates.
It’s worth contrasting the Russos’ take on the cinema of tomorrow with that of James Cameron, whose visionary status is beyond dispute. In the latest round of interviews for his forthcoming Avatar sequel, the 68-year-old director was asked to explain the rationale behind shooting its many subaquatic sequences in an old-fashioned water tank, when the scenes could have easily been mocked up on dry land.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that it looks good?” he snorted. “Come on! You want it to look like the people are underwater, so they need to be underwater. It’s not some gigantic leap — if you were making a western, you’d be out learning how to ride a horse.”
For Cameron, the future of film still strongly resembles its past, albeit in pin-sharp, VFX-draped 3D. What the Russos are describing, on the other hand, sounds like the movie equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse: a sideshow that’s mistaken itself for a replacement. I mean, who knows? Perhaps there really is a sizeable market for a Tom Cruise hologram you can badger from your sofa. But it won’t be anyone’s new version of seeing Top Gun: Maverick in IMAX.
The pleasures of the screwball Dressed to Kill (emphasis on both “screw” and “ball”) flat-out do not translate to print, but for what it’s worth, it’s the most perfectly directed film ever, provided that you, like this critic, bust into orgasmic laughter when Jerry Greenberg’s double-shuffling editing makes it seem like the only threat that Nancy Allen’s Liz Blake and a wooden Samm-Art Williams’s subway cop can see boarding the subway train is a 250-pound bag lady.
Kino Lorber’s 4K UHD transfer of Dressed to Kill comes straight from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. And with all the extras, aside from a commentary track, being housed on a separate Blu-ray disc, every byte of space on the 4K disc goes toward maximizing the image detail of the film. For as sharp and rich in detail as this transfer is, though, it retains all the surface pleasures of the film’s intentionally gauzy, soft-focus aesthetic. Colors are decidedly more vibrant than they are on the Criterion Collection’s 2016 Blu-ray, in everything from Nancy Allen’s golden curls to her iconic purple dress. The disc comes with the option for the original lossless 2.0 mono audio and 5.1 surround sound, which features a well-balanced mix that lends a resounding depth to Pino Donoggio’s lush, giallo-esque score.
Kino’s veritable feast of extras kicks off with an audio commentary by critic and author Maitland McDonagh, who provides an astute and detailed analysis of the film’s elaborate, psychologically motivated visual style. McDonagh consistently makes the argument that Brian De Palma’s many flourishes contain multitudes, while delving into the controversies that the film sparked upon its release. The next most substantial extra is the 45-minute documentary “The Making of Dressed to Kill,” which, among other things, gets into the genesis of the film and how The Phil Donahue interview of a transgender woman, Nancy Hunt, inspired De Palma to reshape his unmade screenplay of Cruising into Dressed to Kill. (Another documentary, “Slashing Dressed to Kill,” also from 2001, covers the story behind the film’s R, NC-17, and X-rated cuts, pairing well with a separate feature that shows numerous side-by-side comparisons.)
Among the glut of interviews included as extras are three new ones with Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, and associate producer Fred C. Caruso. Caruso’s is a bust, as he seems interested in little more than touting his various credits and insisting upon the importance of dialogue when discussing a film where that may be its least important feature. By contrast, Allen and Gordon provide interesting insights into De Palma’s working process, both on the script level and during production. There’s also a brief tribute to the film by Gordon, who displays a deep affection for De Palma and credits him for teaching him everything he knows about filmmaking.
All the remaining interviews are archival, including several more with Allen and Gordon from 2012 and 1980. The interviews with Angie Dickinson and producer George Litto are interesting, particularly the former, in which the actress opens up about the vulnerability she felt on set and her fondness for De Palma, who was always looking out for her. Also included are audio-only interviews with Dickinson and Caine, the latter of whom gives great insight into the differences between working on a typical film and one where the visual grammar requires an intense precision of movement. The package is rounded out with trailers and radio and TV spots.
With a stunning new transfer and bounty of extras, this 4K UHD release is the best home video release to date of Brian De Palma’s exquisitely directed and gloriously trashy slasher.
When you were cast as Jake Scully in BODY DOUBLE, do you know what movies Brian De Palma had seen of you?
That’s a good question. I know De Palma had seen a two-part episode of a TV series I did called Skag with Karl Malden. I played his oldest son. Like FOUR FRIENDS it’s about Serbian immigrants who are steel workers. And Karl Malden really is Serbian. It was wonderfully written by Abby Mann who also produced it. This two-part episode was about me and Karl going to Atlantic City on a break from the steel mill. While there I meet a hooker, played by Dee Wallace. Of course, my character falls in love and Karl’s like: You idiot! I’m like: She’s okay, dad. She’s a great gal. Anyway, it was so wonderful, working with Dee. She’s my favorite actress who I ever worked with. And this two-part episode is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I know Brian De Palma saw this.
Just as a sidenote: Karl was the president of the Academy and he nominated me for membership. But they didn’t let me in! They rejected me.
That’s strange. What do you need to do to get in?
You’re asking me? I never got in! [Laughs] Supposedly, you give them a list of your credits and then you need two members who vouch for you. I had Michael McGuire and Karl Malden nominating me. And Karl was the president of the Academy. But I guess someone blackballed me. You can’t have anyone blackball you.
Now the same thing happened years later. In 2007 I go to Massachusetts to a film festival to honor Arthur Penn’s work. Sid Ganis was there, who produced AKEELAH AND THE BEE in which I have small part. And at that point he was the president of the Academy. And he walks up to me and says: How come you’re not a member of the Academy? I said: I’d like to be. He said: Just make a submission and I’ll make sure you become a member. And I got Sid and someone else to vouch for me. And I get rejected again!
But you know, it’s not that big of a deal, I don’t even have the clothes to go to these parties [laughs]. I’m a black T-shirt and jeans guy.
I’m nearly fifty and I never learned how to tie a tie.
[Laughs] I love you. You’re my kind of guy.
Let’s get back to De Palma. His movies are always exaggerated, even the performances in them. Did this prove a challenge for you? That scene in the tunnel for example…
No, I love De Palma. He’s an understated comedian. He’s really funny. And he’s a poet. That’s the thing people don’t know. He sees the humor in the fact that he’s supposed to do something as a filmmaker and then he does the opposite. He’s like: Why do I have to stay inside these boundaries? Yesterday I happened to be flipping the channels and SCARFACE was on, with my old buddy Steven Bauer. We used to call him Rocky Bauer. When I came to Los Angeles we used to play softball together with Andy Garcia. But I digress. The scene I was watching yesterday is the scene where those two gunmen come into the club and start shooting everybody. There’s one guy in that scene with a weird costume on and a conehead. And he’s wobbling around while he gets shot. Why is that guy even in that scene? But that’s Brian. Just throwing that guy in there.
But you did talk with him about the role of Jake Scully?
Sure. He pulled me aside and told me that this story was about mediated experience. For instance, the telescope represents television, movies, newspapers… And he said: You’re looking at something you love, that you adore, that means everything to you. And you’re seeing it’s in danger. But you don’t know what to do, what action to take. You’re frozen. Take action, Jake! Take action! Action! Right? It’s a great double entendre, with Jake being an actor. And he said: You don’t build up the courage to fight for what you love until what you love is gone and all that’s left is a bad impersonation of it. I was like: Wow, you’re blowing my mind! That’s what the movie was for him.
But Brian said: Nobody will ever see that. And he was right. Because he was always targeted. BODY DOUBLE came out the same week as THE TERMINATOR. That’s a great movie. It’s magnificent. But you know, it’s pretty violent. And we got criticized for being misogynistic, because one woman is murdered and you don’t even see it on screen. It’s all in your head. Well, there’s lots of movies where somebody dies. But now suddenly, Brian De Palma is a misogynist. And the critics at the time didn’t know what to make of him because he’s not a cookie-cutter kind of filmmaker.
The whole movie was also a salute to Hitchcock. Go back to Hitchcock and you can see it’s all there. I mean, Tippi Hedren’s daughter is Melanie Griffith! How on the nose can you get? De Palma asked me: Craig, can you do a Jimmy Stewart imitation? And I started answering him in my best Jimmy Stewart voice, but before I got anything out, he said: Don’t. You are Jimmy Stewart, just don’t do Jimmy Stewart.
My favorite sequence of the movie is where you follow Deborah Shelton to the Beverly Hills Mall and you’re watching her buy new underwear and you grab her old underwear out of the trashcan. There’s something humorous about that whole scene. It really lays bare Jake’s weakness.
I loved the interview you did with William Friedkin in which he says that people aren’t good or bad, they’re all in this grey area of morality. And he’s right. We’re all messed up. We can be great and horrible. So, a guy grabbing some underwear out of the trash. It’s disgusting, but at the same time you might think: I don’t know. I might do that. It’s an embarrassing human trait. You’re in love with a woman you don’t dare approach, now at least you have something. [Laughs]
Did the criticism of the movie hurt your career at the time?
It might have. People were offended by the fact that I wasn’t the typical hero. I played a less than perfect guy. A disappointing kind of guy, you know? I remember going to the premiere. Lot of big shots were there. I brought my girlfriend. My agent was sitting behind me. At first people were responding positively and I leaned over to my girlfriend, saying: I think it’s going well. But after it was over, there was no applause. Just this sort of hush. I thought: Oh, man, that’s not good. My agent was afraid to be seen with me. He walked out quickly, with his back to me. I thought: That’s not good either.
Maybe you were too successful in portraying Jake. Because it’s not only that he has a phobia, and he’s a peeper and a panty-stealer, or his inability to save Gloria. After all that he also goes undercover as a porn actor! I love that about the movie and I think your performance sells it. But watching BODY DOUBLE, you are embarrassed as a viewer. And if you don’t see the humor in this human folly, the way De Palma probably intended, then you’re not having a good time watching this.
I agree with you, brother. It’s the kind of movie people want to distance themselves from. That’s why the distance of years has made it more acceptable for some people. You could almost say: Oh, that was the eighties. But I got a secret for everyone out there… Nothing’s changed. Guys are still weird. [Laughs] And women are mostly fine with that. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Did the experience in BODY DOUBLE, doing the music video with Frankie Goes to Hollywood as a scene in the film, somehow inspire you to do a music video for Have Me Arrested?
I truly don’t remember if I did the video for Have Me Arrested before or after BODY DOUBLE. I know for a fact that I had written and recorded Have Me Arrested before the movie. The song was meant to address the news industry. It was about all these constant lies to control you through fear.
I wrote a song for the movie that De Palma actually was going to use. He had asked me to write it. He wanted something like Every Breath You Take. My song was called What You Do, I Do. But Columbia Pictures was owned by Coca-Cola at the time and they already had a deal with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But it worked out for the best, because that video is great and the song is fantastic.
I want to go back to your breakout role in Amadeus. You were also filming Scarface at the same time. What are your memories of having to shift between the two?
I'd film in Prague, get on a plane and go to Hollywood, film a little in Hollywood, go back to Prague. The plane trip was lengthy. It gave me time to adjust to the next thing I was going to do. Scarface became a vacation from Amadeus and, in reverse, Amadeus became a break from Scarface. Because the two characters were so completely different, it wasn't difficult to perform the two characters distinctly. If they had been closer together, that might have been a problem.
In fact, it was very romantic. It was movie making! The old glamorous stuff. It was every actor's dream.
I know that Al Pacino also wanted the role of Salieri.
Well, everybody did. Everybody.
Did he ever bring that up to you?
When I was on the set of Scarface, we were preparing. By the way, Brian De Palma was terrific to work for. I'm only going to talk about the directors I liked. Brian De Palma is one of them. Otherwise, I don't have much regard for them.
When I was on the set, the second or third day of the rehearsal, I got news that they had decided to give me the part of Salieri. When the word spread, everybody was pretty nice about it. Pacino came over and he said, "Congratulations. Don't try to carry the whole film by yourself. Just do the work." It's very good advice from a man who wanted the part.
Are you two still in touch?
Oh, yeah. We run into each other from time to time. We function in different circles. He's in the multimillion dollar pictures and I'm in the almost-million dollar pictures. But he's devoted to the theater, and so am I.
Set in Ed Koch-era Manhattan, a sultry haze hangs over Brian De Palma’s chic erotic slasher Dressed to Kill, reminding us of a time when New York felt thrillingly un-synthetic. We’re thrown into a day in the life of glamorous housewife Kate Miller (played by then 49-year-old Angie Dickinson). Morning sex with her clod of a husband, a visit to her worldly shrink (Michael Caine), a moment’s reflection in front of a billboard-size Alex Katz painting at the Met, then afternoon sex with a stranger. De Palma prowls about his side of the camera like a wildcat, mixing slow motion with flashes of terror to entrancing effect. White wine lunches and languorous close-ups of hands flipping through other people’s Rolodexes are spliced against cheaper thrills: beady-eyed voyeurs and paranoid prostitutes, screeching taxi cabs, a gruesome killing in the elevator of a luxury apartment building. This Hitchcockish sequence is the one that film nerds tend to dwell on, but the final scene is the one that I’ve found harder to shake all these years after my first viewing.
The analyst has been locked away in an insane asylum, where he strangles a nurse, changes into her uniform and finds his way to Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), the sweetheart prostitute who is onto his double life as a cross-dressing murderer. Sensing that something is amiss, Liz backs into a corner of the shower, the steam building into a thick fog as she tries to think quick. We’ve all been there: alone (or so we thought), defenseless, utterly unprepared for what’s around the corner, especially an unfettered maniac wielding a knife. Liz wakes up in a cold sweat. Nobody slashed her throat after all. But she’s still screaming over the nightmare lodged in her head, and with good reason. Ask any analyst. Lauren Mechling
Writer-director Brian De Palma's brilliant thriller gets the 4K UHD treatment from Kino, and the brand-new Dolby Vision/HDR master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative delivers stunning results. This twisted tale of split personality, sexual frustration, and the hunt for a brutal killer still enthralls, titillates, disturbs, and delights, and it's never looked better or felt more immersive than it does here. Two solid audio tracks and an entire disc of supplements make this the definitive edition of Dressed to Kill and it comes very Highly Recommended.
Two movies released in 1980 changed my life. One was Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. The other was Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill. Both films bowled me over with their brash technique and both fostered within me a deep appreciation for cinematic innovation and lyrical storytelling that continues to this day.
Raging Bull made the biggest impression on me, but I was obsessed with Dressed to Kill. The intricacies of its plot, jaw-dropping twists and turns, Hitchcockian flavor, agonizing suspense, split screens and slow motion photography, and yes, all the sex and gore (hey, I was 18 then!) held me spellbound during multiple viewings. I bought the soundtrack album as soon as it was available and played Pino Donaggio's elegant score over and over. I was a classic movie maven even then and caught all the Psycho parallels, but instead of dampening my enthusiasm for Dressed to Kill, they enhanced it. Watching De Palma take Hitchcock's blueprint, amp it up for contemporary audiences, and put his individual stamp on it exhilarated me.
Dressed to Kill might seem tame today, but it was pretty hot stuff four decades ago, and more than a little controversial. Allegations of misogyny, gratuitous female nudity, and violence against women plagued the film and dogged De Palma. The criticisms weren't unfounded - they also could be leveled at Hitchcock and Hollywood itself, which began exploiting and mistreating women as far back as the early talkies when James Cagney smashed that half-grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy - but as the years passed it became clear if De Palma had any agenda at all it was simply to produce an artistic, edgy, psychosexual thriller.
It's hard to believe it's been 42 years since my first exposure to Dressed to Kill, but the passage of time hasn't dulled the picture's impact. If anything, I find the story of Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), a sexually frustrated wife and mother who gets picked up by a stranger at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and gets slashed to death hours later in the elevator of his apartment building by a mysterious "blonde woman," more disturbing and unsettling now than I did then. As I age, I appreciate more fully the ironies of life, the consequences that can result from moments of weakness, impulsive actions, and lapses in judgment, and the devastation and senselessness of random acts of violence. More than a slick thriller and absorbing mystery, Dressed to Kill worms its way into our psyche and taps into our fears and vulnerabilities as it spins its intricate web. Any of us could be Kate Miller, any of us could be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's what makes the movie so damn scary.
And like so many scary movies, Dressed to Kill is also a helluva lot of fun. De Palma does for elevators what Hitchcock did for showers...and then some. As I watched the film this last time I had to steel myself and fight off a queasy feeling of dread during the lead-up to that fateful scene. Four decades later, it's still brutally effective and completely terrifying (maybe more so in 4K UHD), but just like there's so much more to Psycho than the shower scene, there's so much more to Dressed to Kill than that vicious elevator encounter.
De Palma's flashy technique keeps the eye constantly engaged without feeling self-conscious and his snappy script contains plenty of memorable dialogue. While it's a hoot to see Nancy Allen, who plays a high-class call girl who witnesses Kate's killing, verbally spar with police detective Dennis Franz, whose loud, cheesy wardrobe makes him look more like a pimp than a cop, it's the lengthy sequences without dialogue that really sing. All of them are meticulously and impeccably choreographed to evoke myriad emotions, but the knockout scene in the art museum (which borrows a bit from Hitchcock's Vertigo) is a bona fide tour de force and arguably the most compelling and masterfully constructed sequence of De Palma's career. Watching Dickinson and her mystery man play a game of cat and mouse as they navigate a maze of galleries in what amounts to a self-contained mini-drama is pure cinematic bliss. The prelude to Kate's murder ranks a close second, and though the dream sequence denouement is far different in tone and a little gimmicky, I can't deny its dazzling execution and off-the-charts fright quotient.
Brian De Palma and menstruation — truly a match made in hell that’s well worth another watch this Halloween. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie is, yes, a teen outcast with telekinetic powers, bad social skills, and a religious yahoo for a mother, but she’s also relatable, likable even. She’s just pissed that nobody ever told her about her period. You know the old adage, Tell a girl the truth and maybe she won’t freak out and bleed all over the locker room. Signs that Carrie is just like us: She sets up a healthy boundary with her mom; she mounts an appropriate defense when she’s suspiciously asked to prom by a total stud; she quite satisfyingly knocks a little monster off his bike for teasing her; and when confronted with the phrase dirty pillows, she replies, “No, Mother, they’re called breasts.” Honestly, I don’t care what the other girls say, Carrie puts on a master class in learning how to own your shit. And against all odds, she finds her way to an ethereal prom night, all blush pink and glitter, with a gentle blond boy showing her how to dance. When she’s crowned onstage, it’s not so much that she’s “made it,” as much as she’s finally just been given a chance to breathe.
Which, of course, makes it all the more heartbreaking when the pig’s blood comes pouring down, and with it, all the old narratives, parental lies, and peers’ cruelties — the very expectations of womanhood — all come back, syrupy and suffocating, to reclaim her. The worst part is the famous climax when Carrie vengefully sets all around her ablaze. This isn’t actually the final scene; instead, for all her teen-girl triumphs, Carrie is punished relentlessly. And that, more than the bloody havoc she wreaks, should haunt us still.
Another track that will endure due to its violent honesty follows in “Anti-Hero”, where Swift faces self-hatred and depression head on, imagining herself surrounded by the people she’s ghosted and a scheming family that is only after her inheritance. The scar on her collarbone returns here as she imagines herself a giant monster with a pierced heart, unable to die. There’s faint irony here, but also fatigue as she repeats the signature chorus: “It’s me / Hi / I’m the problem, it’s me”. This connects with much of Swift’s self-reflection chronicled in the documentary Miss Americana, where she discusses her vast insecurities, but it also points out her standing in the music business, where the ‘family’ of surrounding industry players see her merely as a money-making annoyance. The midnight here stretches into the afternoon, further characterizing the moment as a feeling, as Swift goes to war and shock imagery abounds: “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressman? / A tale as old as time / I wake up screaming from dreaming, one day I’ll watch as you’re leaving and life will lose all its meaning / For the last time”.
Thankfully, the darkness lifts a little with “Snow On The Beach”, which introduces a very interesting sonic inspiration. The minimalist classical background has hints of modern composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, with the short up-and-down of pulled strings looping as the vocal line extends over it. It’s incredibly cinematic, with the use of bells also introduces a somewhat wintery nuance, but the orchestral bed drives the song and makes it softly avant-garde in a manner similar to Bowie’s equally Reich-inspired “Weeping Wall”. Much has been made of the Lana Del Rey feature here, which is already being memed as inaudible – if anything, Del Rey’s voice adds a subtle shade of melancholia, contrasting the pure happiness of the miniature love story the lyrics chronicle. It indeed does feel like, as Swift points out, a moment from a movie.
This theme that into “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, where Swift returns to her hometown, attending what could be read as a homecoming dance only to find her friends ignore her and have moved on. After referencing the ‘Daisy’ persona from Reputation‘s “Don’t Blame Me”, Swift imagines herself as Carrie in the climactic moments of Brian De Palma’s interpretation as the scene turns apocalyptic: “From sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes / I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this / I hosted parties and starved my body / Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss / The jokes weren’t funny, I took the money / My friends from home don’t know what to say / I looked around in a blood-soaked gown / And I saw something they can’t take away”.
As on the first two tracks of the album, the musical composition on “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, with its plucked guitars and subtle synths reminiscent of The xx, hides the emotional darkness quite well, and opens many questions. In a way, it feels like Swift is using pop music to cast a shadow over the brightly illuminated truths within her lyrics on Midnights. Maybe this polarity is not so much a contrast but – similar to the industrial and noise elements on Reputation – an open admission, like a wizard who will introduce his show by exclaiming his work is illusory, but still distracting the audience during the process to alleviate the performance.
Swift portraying herself as Carrie puts into sharp focus who the “monster” in “Anti-Hero” is, illuminating a worldview where women are driven to violence and madness by a world that confronts them with brutality until they break under the punches. That’s where the earlier mention of Courtney Love and Laura Palmer makes a lot of sense – the dark side of the homecoming queen has been a classic staple of modern American pop culture. But in Swift’s equation there is no Bob and no Kurt Cobain; there’s just the very real loneliness of a person constantly bombarded with her own reflection, and her attempts at finding new personas to confront this isolation, which shift and mutate.
As an example, the image of cold blooded vengeance extends to “Vigilante Shit”, where Swift takes the role of Catwoman, all lascivious eyeliner and dressed for revenge. It’s the album’s most minimal track, all quiet anger with its hushed beats and subdued synth lines. Funny enough, the closest sonic reference here is Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind”, which imagines a very different type of revenge and a different kind of vigilantism. This familiarity shouldn’t be read as direct reference, but the similarly eerie-yet-beckoning atmosphere showcases how there is a thematic basis within the emotional core message.
There’s another link here: “Vigilante Shit” is one of multiple appearances of Zoe Kravitz’s presence (the others being her co-credit as writer of “Lavender Haze” and bonus-track-title “High Infidelity” riffing on her show High Fidelity). The actor and the songwriter reportedly quarantined together during the lockdown and Swift later praised her friend’s interpretation of Selina Kyle in The Batman – and the subtle but clever parallels (the cat’s eye, the need for revenge, the double identity, the vigilante character) are too numerous to not work. Kyle can be lined up with Palmer; Carrie and Love as mythical American women who are being demonized for being maladjusted and fighting back against a system that is all too ready to bend them until they break. Their demons are, in a way, manifestations of the structure they reside in – and while Palmer, Carrie and Kyle have Twin Peaks, Santa Paula and Gotham respectively, Love and Swift have LA and New York. This is where the cover art of Swift staring in the flame becomes much more than just an image – to banish the demon or to burn it all down?