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Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” is quite simply the best movie to have been released so far this year. Ignore all of the cinematic philistines who have brought the collective ax down on the film with the unique rage they save for the work of this most underrated and misunderstood filmmaker. According to this faction, the party line is that De Palma is a complete hack who builds his films from the bones of dead directors and has lost his way in the disreputable abyss of camp. The main point seems to be how inferior “Dahlia” is to the previous Ellroy adaptation “L.A. Confidential”.
For these paragons of mainstream culture, these frustrated writers of film criticism, a motion picture is to be judged by its worth as literature. Their analysis of cinema focuses on the mechanics they understand best, the mechanics of writing: plot, character, structure, and theme. The plastic elements of film: lighting, composition, editing, color, sound, and mise en scene are simply checked off as garnish to be used only to express the film’s literary concepts. Under this analysis, “Dahlia” is worthless. Using these criteria, “Dahlia” is inferior to “L.A. Confidential”. Within this template, a film is only as good as its text.
This is the basic misunderstanding of cinema that has plagued the form from its inception when the cinema shackled itself to the mast of 19th century playmaking, photographing plays in some desperate plea for cultural respectability. But there has always been something wonderfully disreputable about the cinema and that is something Brian De Palma has always known. Sex, violence, and our voyeuristic relationship with those elements are the building blocks of basic cinema. We watch characters do the things we secretly desire, that we privately fear. De Palma simply takes us a step further and reminds us over and over again that we are watching a movie, a visual construction of our fantasies so we can catch ourselves being swept up by the fantasy. He is like a magician who dazzles us with a trick only to show us, alas, it really was only a trick, and in the meantime he’s stolen our watch.
Just in time for the release of “Dahlia”, Something Weird Video has released a rare early work by De Palma onto DVD. As to be expected, the 1968 film “Murder a’la Mod” arrives with no fanfare. The neglect and disdain demonstrated by the critical establishment in the United States toward De Palma is truly embarrassing. It’s simply impossible to imagine an early work by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola being dumped unceremoniously onto the DVD shelves without comment.
Some of this neglect can be explained by the very roots of De Palma’s art, his beginnings as an independent filmmaker in New York . The mid to late 1960’s independent filmmaking scene was very much centered on what was known as the New York Underground cinema movement, dubbed the “New American Cinema” to create the illusion of a Nouvelle Vague crashing onto our shores. The movement was spearheaded through the critical writing and films of Jonas Mekas, and the work of such diverse filmmakers as Robert Downey, Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and George Kuchar. Moving among these filmmakers, but never quite part of the “scene”, was Brian De Palma.
Fresh out of Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College , De Palma had a unique angle on filmmaking which was quite beyond anyone’s conception of form over content. De Palma saw filmmaking as a purely plastic form, and viewed the narrative film through the context of media manipulation. Not merely interested in the plot or characters themselves, but rather how they are presented by visual media, De Palma’s films challenge the viewer to question the presentation itself and how they relate to “reality”. The last word appears in quotes courtesy of Vladimir Nabokov, who stated that the word was meaningless without them. This cinematic conception was at first influenced by Godard, but soon Hitchcock joined the mix and the confusion over De Palma was begun. Audiences and critics seem to see De Palma’s films as classical cinema, but in reality they are all works of experimental film that play with the forms of classical cinema to create new works that challenge the nature and purpose of narrative film in the modern world.
“Murder a ‘La Mod” is technically De Palma’s second independent feature film, his first being “The Wedding Party”, which was a much more collaborative work, credited to no less than three directors. “Murder a ‘la Mod” is De Palma’s first completely solo effort, and in many ways, the movie is a time capsule trapped forever within the culture of the era. It is quite audacious with a playful cinematic structure and most interestingly, includes scenes which parallel “The Black Dahlia” 38 years later. In the 1968 film, a series of young women are screen tested for what appears to be a porn film, and are shown looking right into the lens of the camera as the offscreen voice of Brian De Palma directs them to take off their clothes.
In “Dahlia” we get our only glimpse of Elizabeth Short, “the Black Dahlia” herself, through a series of haunting scenes depicting her screen test in which she is berated to act by the voice of the offscreen director, once again voiced by Brian De Palma. In both films, we watch this movie within the movie seeing the women as they are represented by the camera’s gaze. In both films, we sense that this gaze is completely lecherous and exploitative. We see and can also feel our own complicity in seeing. Someone saw Elizabeth Short die. Someone cut her up, cleaned up her remains and placed them like a modern art exhibit in a vacant lot on the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles .
De Palma gives us our first glimpse of this presentation like some kind of framed theater. We glide over a building, past screeching crows to see something across the street, something pale and disconnected like a broken mannequin. The image is completely flat and horizontal. A woman with a baby carriage is seen screaming and running from what she has found. De Palma then ignores her to follow a black car as it winds back to the front street and back to our story of two cops known as Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice, former boxers now Warrant Division detectives played by Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett.
“The Black Dahlia” is not a movie about the “dahlia”, but rather how her murder haunts the lives of these two Detectives and the women, presented as one kind of victim or another, around them. The women are struggling against the lecherous and controlling gaze of men and their desire to destroy or protect them. Or perhaps even own them. One young woman has her flesh branded with the initials “BD”. Within the context of the film’s narrative, the initials were carved by a pimp named “Bobby Dewitt”, but playfully it can also be seen as referring to the “Black Dahlia”, and even more playfully, “Brian De Palma”. Or perhaps more meaningfully, since De Palma completely owns this film in a way few directors can.
There is an almost three dimensional quality to De Palma’s vision of the time and place that renders narrative concerns moot. You simply feel as though you are walking through a virtual reality recreation of not any real L.A. of the late 40’s, but rather the L.A. as depicted in the classic noirs of the past. You feel as though you might run into Bogart from “In A Lonely Place ” or Gene Tierney from “Laura”. The score by Mark Isham is exactly what you would imagine hearing as you walk down these dark streets.
Some have compared “The Black Dahlia” to Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in its sense of perversity and corruption. There is definitely an undercurrent of noir-ish sickness within the film. However, “Dahlia” seems more like “The Lady From Shanghai” to me, in its playfulness with cinematic surfaces, its slyly parodic style, extreme performances that reach towards black comic opera, and its interest in a kind of Brechtian alienation. It also seems as though both films present their narratives as complex not because they really are, but because the complexity is part of the atmosphere.
The argument that the film’s narrative makes no sense is nonsense. It’s all there onscreen, you just have to pay attention. In both “Dahlia” and ” Shanghai “, the resolution is actually quite simple and almost disappointing. The whole point of the film was to drown the audience in so many plots as to leave them as disoriented and lost as the doomed and haunted characters.
At the end of “Dahlia”, De Palma pulls a last minute scare that was once his signature in the days of “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill”. In those films, the effect was one of sudden and intense fear, like a bucket of cold water waking us up out of the dream. But here, the effect is quite different. The photographic image of the dead “Dahlia” remains one of the most horrific and haunting ever published. Looking like a broken doll, it is perhaps the reason why the case still resounds after all these years. At the end of “The Black Dahlia”, De Palma jolts us with the fact that none of these characters will ever forget that image, and the director leaves us to be haunted by it as well.
Brian De Palma (director) / Josh Friedman (screenplay), James Ellroy (novel)
CAST: Josh Hartnett …. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert
Scarlett Johansson …. Kay Lake
Aaron Eckhart …. Sgt. Leland Blanchard
Hilary Swank …. Madeleine Linscott
Mia Kirshner …. Elizabeth Short