Tuesday, September 19, 2006


The Tuesday after a film's release is an eternity in web time, and Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia has been picked over pretty cleanly by now by the usual suspects. Seitz, who went out on a limb on behalf of critical and audience orphans The New World and Miami Vice, is thumbs way up, higher than any review I've seen; even his (former?) New York Press colleague, Armond White, a noted De Palma defender/apologist, was at half-mast. Check the comments section of Seitz's post for a very poor case made by the De Palma prosecution, written for MSNBC.com, which I've written for in the past, and which should know better (or apply editing shears more liberally).

I've swooned over the seductive, elegantly executed ironies, humors, and cruelties of De Palma's films for decades. My enthusiasm has faded in the wake of so many half-realized, or simply unrealized, efforts since the career ground zero of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), with the more independently realized Raising Cain (1992) and Femme Fatale (2002) the standouts, and 1996's Mission: Impossible the most flagrantly borrowed from (at this point more filmmakers have lifted from De Palma than he ever took from Hitchcock). 1993's Carlito's Way is a film whose reputation has grown considerably in the interim since its release. But from 1973's Sisters to 1989's Casualties of War there wasn't another filmmaker I was more consistently interested in, and seeing Dressed to Kill with my unsuspecting mom and my aunt at a New Jersey shore multiplex in the summer of 1980 was a joy. How shocked and delighted we were, which is the way I come out of his best films.

The Black Dahlia , with its loopy, Big Sleep-type plot, is borderline. He and James Ellroy, a sledgehammer prose stylist whose last novel, The Cold Six Thousand, was so terse as to be near-unreadable, are not a good match. Here's what I had to say about the film on the Mobius Home Video Forum, which is linked at right:

"I was predictably mixed on Dahlia--didn't laugh at it (well, Fiona Shaw is pretty over-the-top, a one-woman setpiece who didn't any 180-degree tracking shots for animation) but never really got deeply into it. I read all of Ellroy's books prior to seeing L.A. Confidential--loved them, like meteors, however, his ability seemed to flame out. I would have left more of the text on the cutting room floor, frankly, allowing De Palma to do more of his stuff (there's not nearly enough of his cinekinetics here, and too much that plays to his weaknesses)--it's a movie that's bound to frustrate De Palma and Ellroy fans alike (I'm not sure his work is all that adaptable, or like Confidential adaptable only in part, with much revision).

Camerawork and production design are all aces--but were U.S. steering wheels ever on the right? In Bulgaria, the country of most filming, I assume, yes. Acting is variable--Josh Hartnett's face is bound to harden into a Charles Bronson death mask, but that's a few years off. He's not bad but Scarlett Johansson really seemed stranded, not at all period, and neither seemed at ease with their cigarettes.

I had heard De Palma was going to film the spooky novel Toyer, to star Colin Firth and Juliette Binoche, but that seems to have fallen into development hell.

The one thing I like about De Palma is that, according to Film Comment, he's the one noted filmmaker who avidly attends film festivals--not, or not just, to see his movies off, but to watch many others as well, clad in his familiar safari suits. I admire that commitment."

My mom's recommendation steered me toward the terribly titled Hollywoodland--who wants to see a movie called that?--for a double dose of L.A. Law, period-style. As I noted, "It's flatly directed by Sopranos veteran Allen Coulter and TV-looking, no great shakes--but it got under my skin in a way the all-surfaces Dahlia didn't. Adrien Brody's too-large part tracking the 'killer' of George Reeves is a bother but Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Lois Smith, and Jeffrey DeMunn, among others, give more deeply felt, at times touching performances as their true-to-life (if not altogether true-life) characters chafe under the blanket of tinsel. It's a good double-header with Dahlia but will of course go well with the Reeves Superman TV shows when it reaches DVD."

Elaborating a bit further, further than the film itself goes, Hollywoodland takes place roughly between 1951-1959, as the studio system was collapsing. Its weapons of subservience, molly-coddling and intimidation, were applied without the velvet gloves, and the film conjures the specters of blacklisting--not just of suspected communists but homosexuals and anyone who failed to toe the line, in this case a stock actor (played by a stock actor whose career wounds were largely self-inflicted) who was never quite able to secure a strong foothold in his world (Brody's fictional character, a failed detective and father sniffing out clues to foul play in his death, is his mirror image).

Hollywoodland gives you more to chew on once you've left the theater, which as I've written before is the best you can ask from a movie that doesn't quite add up while watching it. But, forget it, Jake--neither of these films is Chinatown, the classic of its kind.


Lenny said...

While agreeing, more or less, with your career overview of DePalma, I confess that I find myself underwhelmed by the prospect of seeing THE BLACK DAHLIA on the big screen. The basic story has always struck me as unbearably tragic and pointless, steering into emotional territory a bit to close to CASUALTIES OF WAR (a powerful, but truly disturbing film, somewhat undercut---fortunately?---by the smaller-than-life presence of Michael J. Fox)

At a showing of FEMME FATALE, a guy from the studio was outside handing people response cards to fill out, with most of them (according to him) negative. I didn't need him to tell me that as the majority of the meager audience left before the film finished unspooling. Can't say it matters to me, as both RAISING CAIN and FEMME FATALE are the sorts of mad, darkly comic (some might say silly) productions that only someone who loves film, knows how to make them and doesn't care who gets the joke, could make. Once upon a time, it didn't matter what names dotted the cast list of his productions, since the real reason most people went to see the film was DePalma himself.

That said, seeing Josh Hartnett on the big screen for any period of time, along with the downbeat story and with a mostly disinterested audience, is an idea that just doesn't float my boat. Truth be told, DePalma star has been somewhat diminished by one too many films that contain good and interesting elements which just
don't develop through the length of the narrative for some time (Would you care to sit through SNAKE EYES, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES or MISSION TO MARS, again?) This movie loving filmmaker is, for me, best appreciated in the confines of one's own viewing space, with remote control at the ready when he takes a narrative flying leap.

Hope I didn't ramble too much!

Robert Cashill said...

Lenny...there's no such thing as "rambling" around here. Much obliged.

I have a used DVD of MISSION TO MARS in my possession, which I may watch...someday. I think I picked it up for $2, which may have been $1.50 too much.

DAHLIA veers so far from the actual case it becomes more of a plot hook than anything else, though what we see of the actual murder is properly upsetting. 1981's somber TRUE CONFESSIONS (which is on the Showtime channels this month and really needs a DVD) does better by it by but neither takes a documentary approach. A 1975 TV movie did but I've never seen it.

A friend agreed with me about the miscasting of Johansson in DAHLIA. She's simply too young for the part. I guess she was considered enough of an above-the-title draw but De Palma can't fit her credibly into the visual tableau, which I think is a primary concern when casting. Some of De Palma's films have spot-on casting, and others a mix of the spot-on (Johns Travolta and Lithgow in BLOW OUT) and wildly uneven or just plain bad (Nancy Allen in the same picture, though she had been good in CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL).

His films are a strange and at times enticing mix of the precise and the out-of-control, exemplified by the funny (maybe apocryphal) story about RAISING CAIN. Old pro Frances Sternhagen just couldn't get the blocking right for the long tracking shot, so De Palma rewrote the part as an addled cancer patient and instructed Gregg Henry (who appears in DAHLIA) to pull her back in when she wandered out of frame, which she does at least twice in the sequence. And it works.