Sunday, July 10, 2016

Picture/Portrait: De Palma & Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

I can't think of any other film director whose work continually captivated me but has drawn such violent reactions from various friends than the movies of Brian De Palma. It didn't seem to matter whether it was ones that I loved (Hi Mom!Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Femme Fatale and Redacted), ones that I didn't (Sisters, Scarface, Body Double, The Black Dahlia and Passion), or ones with virtues disguised by their compromises (The Untouchables, Raising CainSnake Eyes and Mission to Mars), folks had an axe to grind and I was often the stone used to sharpen it. From the moment one individual introduced me to the fiendishly clever 1974 musical comedy, Phantom of the Paradise, I was drawn into De Palma's spiky impudence. The devious way he deployed irony to give genre pictures a wicked vitality I found to be both darkly funny and emotionally searing – even heartbreaking. This equivocal approach may account for most of the strong reactions I got from various moviegoers. Often when artists use irony, it's with a knowing sense of detachment, and the film congratulates you on your hipness while keeping you cocooned in your certainties. But De Palma played out life's failures on a grand operatic scale. He drew us into a waking nightmare and then proceeded to pull the rug out from under our convictions. That's maybe why one friend, who I took to The Fury after he returned from a yoga retreat, didn't speak to me for months. Subjecting him to a hallucinatory thriller about two teenagers with telekinesis and where De Palma (as critic Terrence Rafferty once wrote) "generate[d] horror from nightmarish exaggerations of the experience of adolescence: the feeling that your impulses have gone out of control, that even your own body is alien, perhaps hostile...," put him in touch with basic drives the weekend in the country was supposed to cleanse. A few years later, when we went to see Blow Out, he took a swing at me afterwards. (Luckily, he missed.) The picture was about a man whose gifts fail him when he tries to unravel a political conspiracy and save the one person he cares about most. What may have disturbed him was that it went against the grain of having our virtues overcome the desires of those who continually undermine them. Needless to say, he never again went to another Brian De Palma picture with me. But others eagerly took his place popping out of press screenings, or surging through crowds of people having a Christmas libation, to demand what I thought of Scarface, or verbally confronting me over how Carlito's Way infuriated them. One much friendlier critic years later, after seeing his Iraq War drama Redacted, even told me, "He better not be kidding."

The question of whether De Palma was kidding or being serious needn't be a mutually exclusive one. Yet that conflicted query is often the fuel that sets others ablaze with indignation – whether it's charges of misogyny by certain feminist groups over his erotic comedy/thriller Dressed to Kill, heated commentary over the perceived grave-robbing of Hitchcock in Carrie, or the "sado-pornography"of his depiction of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by American soldiers in his deeply mournful Vietnam War drama Casualties of War. The conventions of drama are known to follow certain rules of conduct, but Brian De Palma's most incendiary act – thanks to Godard's film essays in the Sixties with their keen awareness of our relationship to movies and pop culture – was to use our relationship to those conventions as a means to satirically subvert them. And in doing so, De Palma was able to (as Pauline Kael once suggested) use humour to intensify horror and vice-versa. Sometimes borrowing the cinematic language of Hitchcock, where voyeurism became a dramatic strategy to implicate the audience, De Palma made us aware of our own vulnerabilities. Yet the bigger irony, despite all the intense debate his movies can stir, is that even with his place secured among his peers in American Seventies cinema – including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Coppola – Brian De Palma is still a virtually invisible presence in critical film study. He barely rates a mention in Peter Biskind's tell-all primer Easy Riders, Raging Bulls on American auteurism in the Seventies. Even the brazen anti-war tone of his early burlesque political satires, Greetings and Hi Mom!, didn't find a warm spot in the hearts of the Sixties counter-culture. But a new documentary, De Palma, by film directors Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, Francis Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night), which lets the director alone speak to the camera about his body of work (including his struggles as both an independent and Hollywood movie-maker) promises answers to all these puzzling concerns. De Palma never finds a clear focus, or a provocative narrative, to delve very far into the ongoing controversies surrounding the director. But his anecdotes and observations – supported by selected film clips chronologically inserted – are still compelling reflections of a subversive American artist looking back with a wry bemusement on the grenades he lobbed.

Nancy Allen, De Palma and John Travolta during shooting of Blow Out

Right at the beginning, De Palma talks about Hitchcock's Vertigo and he smartly describes it as a movie that explores what directors always do: make the audience fall in love with the illusions they create. (In the case of Vertigo, De Palma states that Hitchcock destroys that illusion – twice – when James Stewart loses Kim Novak first as an illusion and later in reality.) But the documentary doesn't fully follow up on that treatise and explore whether Brian De Palma's movies tend to do the same thing. (I'd argue that his best pictures strip away our coveted illusions in order to reveal the darker reality behind them.) Baumbach and Paltrow cover a lot of ground, but they don't dig too deeply. While they have De Palma recount the familiar story of how his tolerance for blood grew out of watching his orthopedic surgeon father perform in the operating theatre, they seize on something stronger when they have him reveal how his parents' unhappy marriage destroyed their home. De Palma describes how his father's indiscretions (which he dramatized in the low budget 1980 autobiographical comedy feature, Home Movies) led him to track down his father's mistress with a knife until he confronted her in a closet. As a director of primal thrillers, comedies and gangster dramas, it would be fascinating to hear him discuss how those themes became so personal in his movies. But since Baumbach and Paltrow are the director's friends, they settle in for a more companionable series of interviews. De Palma takes us comfortably through his career, but without the cutting depth, or the stinging intensity that once surrounded the reaction to pictures like Dressed to Kill, Scarface and Body Double.

Nevertheless, De Palma does uncork some entertaining stories about composer Bernard Herrmann's unwieldy tantrum when he came to score Sisters and heard his music for Psycho being used as a temp track on a murder scene. There's also a hilarious explanation for Cliff Robertson's night-of-the-living-dead performance in Obsession. Sometimes De Palma provides a fascinating perspective on his failures like his adaptation of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities where he laments that the picture might had been better had he trusted his instincts and given the picture the juicy cynicism of Sweet Smell of Success. He is affecting, too, when he describes the commercial failure of Blow Out and talks about the sting of John Travolta's final scene as he hears a scream he'll never forget. (Baumbach and Paltrow undercut that moment, though, with a quick cut to Al Pacino's "Say hello to my little friend" outburst in Scarface. We go jarringly from the devastation of a man confronting his own impotence to the boasting machismo of another one acting it out.) I wish De Palma had spent more time on less familiar pictures like Redacted (which updates themes from both Hi Mom! and Casualties of War) and The Fury (which De Palma largely dismisses except for John Williams' astonishing film score). There were dream projects that De Palma missed out on that never get a full hearing like his desire to adapt Alfred Bester's 1952 SF detective story, The Demolished Man, which contains themes De Palma touched on in The Fury. We also don't hear much about his ideas for Act of Vengeance, about the Yablonski murders, that was turned into a routine Charles Bronson action vehicle in 1986, and Fire, about a rock legend who fakes his death like Jim Morrison and was to star John Travolta. De Palma talks about his tenacious battles with censorship and Hollywood, but there's little about how those culture wars wore on him. For instance, Body Double was bathed in bitterness when it came out in 1984. At the time, De Palma seemed to be taking on everyone who dismissed his best work by giving them every reason to hate him. Yet hearing him speak about it here, you'd never know just how fractious the reaction to the picture truly was and why. What De Palma does is chronicle rather than critically evaluate his work in the context of its time. (Brian De Palma's recognition as a political director has only been delved into in any depth by Chris Dumas in his lively critical study, Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible.) Which is why I doubt if anyone who doesn't already know his pictures will find De Palma as riveting as those who do. In many ways, it's gratifying that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow made De Palma with such great affection in order to bring the prickly director into the light, I only wish there was more substance to chew on. For it's unlikely anyone will ever tell this story again.

In Thorsten Schütte's spunky and informative documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words, the outrageously gifted American composer gets to speak in his own words just as Brian De Palma does in De Palma. But unlike in De Palma, where the filmmakers sat him down for a cozy and informal chat, Schütte gathers source material on the late composer from various television interviews, concert appearances and news stories taken over many years. What he creates is a vividly morphing collage of a contentiously innovative artist whose work in his own country was largely uncomprehended and unheard. Starting with the premise that Zappa found the process of being interviewed a few steps removed from an inquisition, Schütte deftly examines the paradox that Zappa was indeed famous, but nobody really understood what he was actually famous for since his music – except for novelty numbers like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Valley Girl" – never had North American radio exposure. Zappa brought to popular music a strong desire to break down the boundaries between high and low culture and that confounded programmers and came to annoy people in the world of both rock and classical music. His viscerally potent mixture of scatology and serious composition also upset those who either wished to cling to a safer, more romantic view of art as something morally and spiritually edifying, or for those who had the flagrant desire to fling snot at the status quo. (Critics like Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs could be counted on to light incense sticks around the rebellious ethos of punk, while dismissing Zappa, because they basically cleaved to the more appealing notion of punk triumphantly storming the barricades of the rock establishment.) Zappa's rebellion took the form of presenting musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire and then he turned it into farce. By introducing sophisticated modern orchestral forms into the rambunctious world of rock, he was free to show the same carny enthusiasm when he blew the earnest cobwebs out of the sacred halls of high culture. As an equal opportunity offender, Frank Zappa treated American culture with a fearless irreverence – much like Spike Jones and comic Lenny Bruce had before – and that enabled him to distill our sentimentality while creating the possibility of an absurdist's notion of love. That attitude, though, proved to be paradoxical and this is where Schütte's illuminating film opens up a Pandora's box. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words parses with a sharp acuity the candid impertinence of an American iconoclast who gleefully exposed the political and cultural hypocrisies at the dormant heart of the American ideal.

If De Palma attenuates the contentious heat from the controversy surrounding the director's art, Thorsten Schütte turns up the gas. Since most of the interviews and appearances are hosted by those who have little understanding of Zappa's life and work, there is a perceptible tension that either gets amplified or defused by humour. Schütte clearly understands Zappa's contradictory aspects and so he thankfully doesn't avoid them. Despite the omission of other voices to critically appraise Zappa's own obsessions and faults, Schütte allows Zappa the room to reveal his own opinions on subjects like sex and politics so they can stand on their own. (We can decide for ourselves whether or not we agree.) But it's not always as simple as an either/or choice. For instance, not everyone will embrace Zappa's glowing view of groupies as providing "human sacrifices," but his desire to write songs about them did commemorate a folklore often avoided in popular music (except to further deify them as Chicago did in "The Road," or celebrate groupies with an appealingly lavish bad-boy attitude as The Rolling Stones did on "Stray Cat Blues"). Many liberals won't be able to reconcile Zappa defining himself as a conservative on Crossfire while simultaneously standing up to the PMRC in Congress for wishing to censor and label rock music. His impulse to perform a concerto for two bicycles, electronic noise and orchestra on The Steve Allen Show in 1963 might appear to be a lark. But what Zappa was doing was removing Dadaist absurdism from the confines of the Cabaret Voltaire earlier in the century to having it realized on a popular American television variety show. One has to come to terms with a composer who synthesizes the varied innovations of French avant-gardist Edgard Varèse, the neo-classical Igor Stravinsky, the discordantly ebullient Charles Ives, Fifties doo-wop and blues practitioner Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, to also make room for the lascivious story of "Dinah-Moe Humm." Schütte doesn't provide answers in Eat That Question, but he engages us in a one-size-fits-all perspective on Frank Zappa that grows out of the director's own compositional approach to his movie which allows the dissonant ideas to clash and harmonize.

Frank Zappa on The Steve Allen Show in 1963.

It should be no surprise that when we see Zappa arrive in the Czech Republic to meet Vaclav Havel during the Velvet Revolution, he was greeted by thousands of fans he'd never witness at American airports. While his music was invisible at home, here it was slipped illegally into the country during the years of the Communist regime – and many did jail time for merely owning it. What Schütte rightfully illustrates is that Zappa's disparate art flew in the face of Stalinist political correctness that determined what is proper and what isn't. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words shows us an artist who didn't treat listeners as simply consumers. They were also voyeurs. He understood, as a business man, that the record buying public consumed music to reinforce their lifestyle. Therefore they became susceptible to trends. But Zappa's best work forced the audience to confront ideas and thoughts they might not be comfortable accepting blindly. Schütte actually doesn't feature very much music, but he shows its range which indicates the degree of its political pungency. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words isn't likely to resolve viewers feelings about the artist, either, but it gives us a clearer picture of who he really was. (Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993.) Since Zappa had long hair and an imperial goatee, many chose to characterize him as a deranged freak who imbibed copious chemicals, even though he consistently denounced drugs (except for caffeine and cigarettes which he considered 'food'). He was scorned because of his predilection for adolescent humour and possessing a leering smugness even though he also wrote chamber and orchestral music along with big band jazz and rhythm and blues. Indulging in easy simplifications served for many years as consolation for those who didn't wish to tackle what the music – or the man – was actually about. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words dares to do so.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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