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cinema Essay

Demented Deranged De Palma

Body Double (1984)

Poor Jake Scully. 

What else could he be, but a failure. 

He is playing a goth vampire in a B-Horror movie called ‘Vampire’s Kiss’, only to realize that he has claustrophobia.

Paralyzed in a coffin. Think about a frozen vampire who cannot come out to terrorize at night, a frightening thought. As if on cue, the set of Vampire’s Kiss catches fire. 

But Jake’s been here before. 

Here meaning under the ever growing shadow of disappointment, after all he’s a struggling actor in LA; rejection and failure are any actor’s constant buddies. With his chin back up and small smile on his pale face, Jake drives home, only to find his partner in bed with someone else. 

She also seemed to enjoy it. The face.

Poor Jake Scully. 

When someone is down, one kind word, even a smile might make the person feel that this is godsend.  But cynical De Palma knows that in the real world unlike the ideal, there is no kind word without malevolence, no smile without a secret and no help without expectation. 

Those who fall for these ‘godsend’ acts, risk lowering themselves into the bottomless pit of irredeemable failures. 

Jake Scully’s face is that of pure failure, the one that you want to slap and bring back to life and shout “don’t trust these guys!” when he accepts a caretaker job in the hills of LA. 

It was Hitchcock, who said something about putting the bomb under the bus and making the audience go mad knowing that it is going to blow-out (pun intended) ,Jake’s serial failure to the path to foolishness is DePalma’s answer to Hitchcock’s bomb under the bus.

We can see what’s going to happen to Jake, but he cannot.

A lot’s been said about De Palma’s Hitchcock obsession (yes he’s also made film with the same name- double title pun here, well done me), yet he goes all the way in this neatly laid down trifecta of a plot which includes the best of Vertigo, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. 

It almost feels like De Palma having his vengeance on the critics who had dubbed him Hitch minor. Ok here you go, maybe thought De Palma, here’s three suspense classics- watch me put them in a blender. 

Hitch would have probably recognized the cruel intentions (no pun intended here, no reference too) behind the plot, but would have never muddied his hands and knees in the sewer that De Palma bravely (and gleefully) goes into. Slumming it proudly by making a movie about moviemaking which begins at the fringes of Hollywood and descends into pornography. It’s really too much, but never not enjoyable. 

Never not enjoyable- that’s De Palma as a tagline there for you. That could literally be the title of a career retrospective of De Palma, but they made one such and simply called it De Palma, the fools I tell ya.

Coming back to failures.

Failures make the best reflective protagonists and you can never get a better one than a failure in love; here’s Jake Scully in this fancy house in the hills with the rotating bed and when the lights go down his ‘nearest’ shapely neighbour starts to put on a show. 

Stop looking Jake! Stop looking for God’s sake. 

Easier said than done, but look he does.

Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s a fascination, maybe it’s just that he feels he is owed some relaxation after all the effects of failure kick in. When the relaxation kicks in, also does Pino Donaggio’s astral music plays over her routine, Body Double pushes its weight and reputation from being just another erotic thriller to the realms of art. 

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, one who would have thought that De Palma just is the swoop of the camera, he is just the crazy angles and he is just the slow motion- this would have just been that, an erotic thriller from the 80s which probably was given as an alternative when Basic Instinct was under circulation at your local video store. 

But this is De Palma. 

Nothing is generic, nothing is expected and nothing is out of bounds- you would think an attractive neighbour doing a self pleasure routine is going overboard but then comes the shock of the power drill (did he really do that in the 80s?- first time Tarantino-heads ask lol) and then he surprises you with a musical number shot on an X-Rated film set which weirdly asks us to “Relax, don’t do it, when you wanna go do it.” 

While the voyeuristic elements are drawn out of Rear Window, the movie smoothly blends into long stretches of Jake Scully jointly (?) pursuing his neighbour ala Vertigo which rightly feels like a silent film, here too it’s just on camera and with music that De Palma builds the tension. I cannot stress this enough because Jake Scully is a nobody or say the person could be anybody like you (the reader) or me and not the stars like Grace Kelly, Kim Novak or James Stewart about whose life and death we care about. 

It’s a different way to look at filmmaking to reduce the stress of the characters themselves and put more pressure into the visuals (and in effect on the director himself). 

Roger Ebert opens his review of Body Double, calling it an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking and all through praises the direction but notices that there is very little point to the film. 

Sorry Roger, bless your soul, the point is that De Palma wished to hoist this story of an everyday failure and construct around it one of the most visually stunning thrillers. 

Psst: Ebert also uses the word construct twice, just saying. Would like to state that when the movie came out, critics were not as charitable as Ebert was and promptly dismissed it. Body Double’s reputation has only grown from then on. 

Maybe I’m reading too much or maybe i’m trying to drill (no pun intended here too) home the point of “filmmaker of failure” too much, but to me this clearly is a “it could happen to you” type film and Hollywood does a lot of “this could happen to you” films, ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances; the you in “it could happen to you” is probably played by Cary Grant whose is heroism personified. 

In contrast, Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully (poor Jake) is emasculated in full technicolor, his helplessness is at the core of his failure and when a person is at their depths and when there is no internal motivation to proceed, nature comes to his aid. 

Nature in the form of women, of course. 

First in the form of Deborah Shelton and then in Melanie Griffith. 

There’s a phrase that people going through shit are familiar with- the dark night of the soul. The seemingly unending period of trials and tribulations that a soul has to go through before it’s communion with the ultimate.

Body Double can be seen as Jake Scully living through his long dark night of the soul (it is not necessarily one night) getting one bad hand dealt to him after another, just when you thought he hit rock bottom, there’s another blow waiting for him in the corner. 

The biggest of them all is when his helplessness couldn’t prevent the death of the woman he thinks he is fascinated with, it’s a double blow at the end when he comes to know that he is in some way responsible for it. 

And this is where it turns. 

Body Double is one of the rare happy ending films from De Palma, maybe because it was too much even for him.

Jake Scully does find himself in the end and illustrates that one can simply stop being a failure by just taking control of their life in order to not only to better oneself but to help others. 

But since there is a deadly director like De Palma calling the shots, the difference between success and failure could be as serious as life and death. 

The end.

Cover image credit: https://www.screenslate.com/articles/body-heatbody-double

Categories
cinema

12 Rules for (the Review Reader’s) Life

An Antidote to Cinematic Chaos

I’ve been writing reviews for 10 years now (coughs), reading them from as long as I remember. As years pass, I think there is a lot of obfuscation that goes around within the columns of movie reviews, it either ends up describing something else and leaving the reader in the lurch. 

As a reader first (and writer later), here are my rules for review readers esp those who want an antidote to the chaos that is film reviews (also try and make sense of them).

Rule 1: Almost always, when a reviewer says if a movie is socially important, it most certainly isn’t.

Social importance, historical importance, cultural importance are acquired over time, it is most certainly not acquired over the popcorn counter at Devi Theatre and especially not immediately. What’s relevant now, is not relevant next Friday, so yeah.

If a movie captures “this-very-moment” then it’s just that, look for signs of ascribing importance just because the movie addresses current events. 

Rule 2: Almost always, when a review says that the movie can never be classified as good or bad, it can surely be.

This limbo state only represents the inability of the reviewer to share his/her true feelings of the movie at the time due to whatever compulsion.

While there is a set who focus on what are apparently good and bad elements within the film, if they are not able to make up their mind about the film, it is not the film’s fault. It is the writer’s. 

The reasons could be anything and we don’t need to go into that. 

Rule 3: Never trust a movie review that captures audience reaction. Sample: “at that every moment half the audience had their jaw hitting the floor”

Urgh Hmm it shouldn’t matter. Maybe the writers were not hitting their word count.

Extend this rule to providing trivia, and then assigning value to the trivia, so that the overall importance of the film increases. 

The rules fundamentally rise from the fact that reviews have moved away from being observations but into the realm of accreditation, hence assigning momentary importance. 

Assigning importance can be done subtly in many forms, like social norming, by describing how people were howling in the theatre makes us immediately believe that there could be something ‘important’ at the moment. 

Rule 4: Always disregard should have/ would have criticism. 

“They should have killed off the Amudha character early in the movie, like in Psycho” like samples.

This is the “I watch so many movies so I know how better to make them” mode. Much like “how I go on a field trip to Sriharikota and the next month advising ISRO on what they should do on Mangalyaan” mode.

Rule 5: Almost always do not take seriously anything about shot division, color grading, production value , cinematography, sound mixing, box office predictions

Rule five deals with technicality. If reviewers were technically sound, they would (you know) be making movies etc. Especially now, when anyone can make and upload a movie, while here they are uploading umm reviews?

While I do not deny there could be observational critics who could get a sense of how a technical element informs the story element, they are few and far in between and from what I have read, they now function with an arsenal of adjectives, that when overused come with diminishing ‘awe’. 

Rule 6: Semblance of truth can only be found when reviewers write about what they felt while watching the movie.

It ties to some of the earlier rules, reviewers tend to go into social importance, audience reactions, limbo wording when they are not truly able to come to terms with what they feel about a film.

Rule 7: Almost all observations about how the story made the reviewer feel should always be the most important part of the review.

This is because humans have been reacting to storytelling for centuries, it’s built into us. That’s the power of story. So yeah that’s the only valid point to keep reading reviews. Whether the story engaged the reviewer or not. also since reviewers are humans too 🙂

Rule 8: When reviewers tell that the movie-story is predictable, they are thinking that the audience sees the same number of films as they do. 

It is also an addition to rule 7, it only proves that this movie story did not engage reviewers so saying predictable etc.

Rule 9 All of decoding should be avoided, completely.

A movie is a contract between the maker and the seer, and the maker puts in interesting elements consciously and mostly unconsciously. Let the seers make their own connections. When we make our own meanings, imagine the possibilities.

Rule 10 Treat with suspicion, those who say film reviewing is an art form.

Reasons people give to themselves stay in certain professions should not be treated as fact. A film review has high depreciation value. Only the best of the best survive and that too because the movies are great. The movies are always greater than the impression.

Rule 11 You must consider a possibility that you are in the wrong part of the forest if you are reading the reviews for the words and falling in love with it.

Any movie can be simply expressed without much adoration, ornamentation, alliteration, turns of phrase. These are things writers do to keep themselves interested. 

Stay vigilant, sago, reviewers also slip in “we”, when they mean “I” and immediately make us believe that we also fully buy their versions.

Vigilance is key. 

Rule 12 Always read reviews only after seeing the movie.

Please do not settle down and fill your head with opinions before you watch something. If you need recommendations to catch/thrash it then it means that you are better off not seeing something that friday. 

Movies don’t run away. There’s always time.Let movies collect days and dust. 

In our brief period on earth, each person gets to see a finite set of movies. The good news is we can make this a unique playlist. Do not fall for friday fever.

But of course obvious exceptions for some of the rules apply and I can be accused of breaking almost all of them. But this is my observation over the years

This is not an imaginative piece like ” a world without movie reviews” Of course not. But these rules will question the unnecessary ones (them reviews) and strengthen those who seek guidance in understanding them.

Take it or leave it. 

Honest story based impressions are the best form of reviews. And even these represent the frame of mind of the reviewer at that point in his/her life.

Reviews always tell more about the writer-commentator than about the movies itself. So movies first, reviews next. 

It is also important to have specific taste, and such can be developed only when not overly influenced by others.

For those asking: logical fallacies and plot holes are still game in good reviews as they fall very much into the story. While watching a movie, we are first following the story. Discovering a well hidden plot hole/ gap in a movie is like uncovering a magic trick!

Thank you for reading. Hope it was useful.

Thanks to Alex on Film for the Mayor Ebert image from the movie Godzilla

Categories
Books cinema cinema:english Essay

THE REVIEWING LIFE: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF ROGER EBERT AND HOW IT AFFECTS US

ebert

Roger Ebert.com is the internet’s equivalent of a cavernous traveller’s place that wanderers happen to chance on an unending quest, although in my case it wasn’t a chance finding but more of a destination.

For a year or so(years ago), I’ve thought and rethought about writing to the Far Flung Correspondents column, backspaced paragraphs of introduction now only vaguely remembered by an embarrassed self, deep down I knew that primarily the writings would not be accepted because they simply weren’t good and I had to improve enormously, the reason to be part of the Lowly Laureate is I guess a compromise and an acceptance of mediocrity.

But ever since sheepishly I had tried to ‘tweet’ the articles of that we published to Ebert with half hope that he will read it and half hope he never does, this was till the day of his passing in 2013.

Idols is a kind of distancing word, an un-achievable state, close to ideal perhaps; Roger Ebert was not my idol, I could see that one man can have all the fun in the world by just watching movies and this was the time when I was just watching movies and not having fun.

If there has been some amount of clarity in what we write right now here, is entirely because we know that we are thereabouts and it is quite possible to pursue something wildly. If Ebert had been an idol, our blog wouldn’t have come out.

Although having never met the man or corresponded with him, it is possible for me to imagine how an interaction would have been, it is experienced-smiley uncle vibe that comes out not only in his videos but pervades all through his writings.  Roger Ebert was a great writer, my definition of a great writer would therefore be not to put thrust too much of oneself into one’s words but not being completely absent, even a bad movie review would only reflect the passion he had for writing what he had seen.

Roger Ebert was the hardest working movie critic on the planet even when diagnosed with a terminal disease and the only person to have successfully found a balance between the serious movie critic and the fun movie reviewer on TV.

Life Itself, his memoir or the reason behind this blog post captures that balance to the truest, it is impossible to approach different films with the same amount of seriousness but it possible but still difficult to watch all types of films with the same passion.

Movie reviewing at the end of the day becomes like suggestion generator, what to catch and what to miss, that is not we are interested in; a (any) movie that should lend itself to discussion or in a sense opens your mind about something is a great film, how the film was made/acted/technicalities are perhaps secondary or mostly irrelevant, to see through all these and arrive at the core idea of what a movie really wants to say to you.( the idea might not be singular and open to interpretations).

But mostly things covered in reviews are these secondaries which are quite evident for anyone to see and seriously not a reason for anyone to see a film or not, this is mostly what we try and avoid at our blogs.

We still feel that this is achievable but we have a long way to go. It is also not the motive to be an ‘influential’ blog, we just want to be well informed and well written. I

Influential being the guiding word in these social media times.

Odd it now seems that once you read a memoir of a person that you get to know his entire life, it is still better than reading an overview on Wikipedia and it will be the closest that we would be getting to Ebert himself and the book is a revelation.

Not only can he not write a bad sentence but he is also brutally honest as people tend to become in their twilight, the chapters on his friendship with Siskel notably among the best.

Multiple emotions rush out after a film, it is in translation of these emotions into words without having to apply intellect in-between is the greatest achievement of the movie writer as how it is for the director to bring the word onto the screen, and this is a beautiful process: emotion->word->screen->emotion->word and somehow Ebert has cracked that.

It is highly impossible to see so many movies and not have anything to say about it, most of the best conversations that I have had have been in and about the movies and these discussions never contain themselves to first level opinions but more of a learning process.

Maybe life is just one big movie and probably Ebert’s memoir is one of the best reviews around.

See you at the movies.