Sonic Cinema: Phantom of the Paradise
Although he’s not necessarily the best of his generation, it’s my belief that American filmmaker Brian de Palma is a perfect synthesis of everything representing the “Movie Brat” era. This is for two reasons, those two reasons being the two things I see when I take a look at his oeuvre. The first thing is other people’s movies. The second thing is cocaine. You heard me right. In my opinion, Brian de Palma, at least for the first half of his career, is/was a visual drug dealer, taking the works of others and letting them run wild with his own personal fantasies. When you think about it, Carrie is just The Exorcist, Blow Out is just Blow Up, Dressed to Kill is just Psycho, and Scarface is, well, Scarface. Yet the major difference is that de Palma essentially puts these films on cocaine: he takes the ideas of others and mutates them, amps them up, causes the frame to burn to a crisp with seething energy. He takes his camera, with its blue steel shimmering like the barrel of a gun, and shoves it up against the heads of Hitchcock, Friedkin, Antonioni, and Cagney, whispering the words “Snort up, son,” in their ears. And when you consider that most of those works were visually energetic enough to begin with, it creates an experience lodged directly at the intersection of “visceral” and “surreal.”
But his 1974 film The Phantom of the Paradise doesn’t fit as neatly into this categorization as many of his other films. The whole thing has its nose buried in cocaine, but it’s harder to detect the source material in this case. It’s more like an Aleister Crowley-directed education film on entertainment law than anything else, The Phantom of the Opera but with Alice Cooper instead of Lon Chaney, Citizen Kane but with Brian Wilson instead of Orson Welles.
Like de Palma’s early films often tend to be, Phantom is also a break down and appropriation of cinematic tropes and tendencies, dripping with satirical excess. But unlike Hi, Mom! or Blow Out, it’s impossible to figure out what exactly the film is satirizing. The slavish nature of the entertainment industry? The gaudiness of shock rock in the 1970s? I’m not totally sure, but all I do know is that this film is terribly weird, and in a strange way, terribly sad.
The film tells two stories: the film’s main story concerns Winslow Leach, a struggling Harry Nilsson-esque songwriter who sacrifices his songs and life to the music titan Swan. The second story deals with the fall of Swan, a boy genius who has taken charge of the entire music industry with the firm assistance of Satan. The film begins simply enough, but it soon transforms by eating up the plot lines of a thousand other stories: The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Faust, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tommy, most of Meat Loaf’s discography… It’s impossible to state what exactly this film is trying to be in terms of its influences.
There are two things about Phantom of the Paradise that contribute to my sadness. The first is the tragedy of the songwriter, with everything robbed of him except for the melody bleeding from his fingers, wailing out of a small tinny box and into a soundbooth receiver. After being imprisoned by Swan in an out-of-place slapstick-like gag scene, the protagonist has his head crushed in a record press, causing him to transform into a mechanical beast that looks a bit like a medieval RoboCop. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the plight of songwriters, I suppose. If used in the right way, I think this, and the film’s small love story, could be used to great effect. But they are instead thrown right into the pot of weirdness that de Palma appears intent on turning the film into, lacking the delicate attention they need to be transformed into something beautiful. The second sad bit of this film deals with the music. Phantom of the Paradise actually has a fantastic soundtrack, but for a film so concerned with the music industry, it receives little of de Palma’s adrenaline-hungry attention span. We mostly hear a few alright Paul Williams tracks, repeated themes, and slightly boring melodic phrases. The great music in the film, the astounding shock rock and the weird “nostalgia wave” music that helped lift Swan to his place in entertainment, is featured, but only to a certain degree. The “nostalgia wave” music in particular is a bit of forward-thinking satire on the part of de Palma, as it has become ever-apparent in our society that we are inflicted with a bad case of collective nostalgia for a past that never even existed, but this music plays such a small role in the film that it doesn’t ultimately create a deeper meaning.
It’s a little bit of an overstatement, but in a certain sense, Phantom of the Paradise is the musical equivalent of Network- a satire that might seem ridiculous but also has to some degree come true, with many individuals throughout modern history having “sold their souls” for entertainment. It’s also a musical take-down of the decade De Palma loves so dearly, the 1970s, with media obsessions and gaudy dreams being the film’s major topics. In a manner similar to Network, It ends in an on-TV assassination and terrifying orgy-like romp, with the camera swirling up above the Paradise’s debauched denizens, but it isn’t nearly as effective as Network. Phantom’s ultimate fault is that it attempts satire without properly choosing its target; Network is clear in its targeting of the modern television industry, and while there are definitely several people or ideas being lampooned in Phantom, there’s honestly just too much going on for it to have any proper meaning. It ends up seeming more flamboyant than insightful, which I suppose makes a point about satire itself, as it’s often hard to toe the line between “clever and creative commentary” and “over-the-top on-screen orgy.”
With all this in mind, Phantom of the Paradise reminds me of a musical group that’s about as misguidedly mediocre as the film itself. It’s the always loveable anti-British Invasion group Paul Revere and the Raiders, with their song “Kicks” reminding me most of this movie. Both could have been great satires of the national zeitgeist at their respective times, but they become too absorbed in excess to actually meaning anything. A lot of people in this movie want to get their kicks, and I want to get my kicks watching it, yet we both don’t end up finding them.