Brian De Palma Week: Phantom of the Paradise is a rock musical meditation on art and commerce
It wasn’t until very recently that I first saw Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. Since my first viewing at Shame Files Live, I’ve gone on to watch it multiple times, both in a theater and at home, and every time it gets exponentially better. What a strange thing indeed for a silly, metatextual rock opera to emerge from the brain of a filmmaker once touted the “master of the erotic thriller.” Yet the more I watch Phantom, the more I think it might be the quintessential De Palma film. It’s certainly the only one I know of that feels like self-commentary — which is doubly special given that De Palma himself is no stranger to strong opinions on the nature of the film business.
So what is De Palma saying with Phantom? Well, before I get ahead of myself, let me share with you the one thing that has always stuck with me about his work. De Palma’s camera always seems to be hiding from the actions it’s capturing. What I mean is that my favorite filmmakers typically tend to make their camera invisible to the audience. To me, a great shot is one I don’t think about unless I’m actively analyzing it. It’s for this reason that I fucking HATE shaky cam. A smart shot is not one that announces the director’s presence, but rather one that draws the viewer into the reality of the film. Typically, this means that the performers are tasked with the thankless job of ignoring a camera that is all up in their business. De Palma takes a much different approach. His camera is certainly not present to the audience...but neither is it to the performers. Instead, it feels like surveillance. It‘s like De Palma is spying on his own movie. I can’t think of another filmmaker who does that (maaaaybe Jonathan Demme?).
This style is certainly appropriate given his own history with surveillance as an adolescent — baby De Palma rigged a camera system to catch his father in marital infidelity. In this instance, the camera HAD to be hidden.
Phantom of the Paradise, however, is the only film in De Palma’s body of work that brings the camera into the narrative explicitly by having the performers directly address it during certain sequences. It happens quite a few times, but the most striking example is during Phoenix’s audition for the Paradise. As she chicken dances her way through Special To Me, she makes direct eye contact with the camera and sings as if she’s giving a private performance to viewers of the film. It’s a striking moment that shows the audience exactly what the intended tone of the film should be. Phoenix doesn’t necessarily know she’s in a movie, but the movie itself sure as hell knows just what it is. This sets the table for the thematic questions posed throughout the duration of the film.
As a horror fan, it’s quite often that a meta narrative aims to inquire why it is that we consider carnage to be entertainment. From Scream to The Cabin in the Woods to Funny Games, that’s the main question. Why is destruction so appealing? Why, oh why do we rabidly consume depictions of exploitation and call it healthy? Phantom of the Paradise isn’t so interested in these tired questions (whose answer is the same tendered to parents that question a rambunctious teen’s love for Apple Jacks: “we just do!”) and instead focuses on the next step: What are we capable of if our appetites are not fed, and what needs to be done in order to feed them?
The remainder of the film is about a powerful man exploiting the work of vulnerable artists in order to feed an unappeasable, rabid market of consumers. Where the film assigns fault is anyone’s guess, as its depiction of powerful people and the hungry plebes they must service are equally unflattering. And really, why provide an easy answer when you can force the audience into introspection by looking right at them multiple times?
It’s no secret that even the most successful filmmakers often have to kowtow to the studio as well as the audience, losing some artistic integrity in the process. It’s certainly no secret that De Palma has had to do this many times. Even as early in his career as Phantom was, he was no stranger to such struggles. And he’s certainly not the type to sit back and say nothing about it. How clever of him to hide it all behind what, by all appearances, is just a silly parody of a classic tale.
Yeah, the music rips, the design is unmatched, and the performances are idiosyncratic in the best of ways, but Phantom sticks with me because it’s De Palma having a blast while saying “I’m doing my best to please all of you, but you sure don’t make it easy.” As evidenced by the film, he’s not pointing fingers either. De Palma knows it’s his duty to deliver regardless of circumstances, and he’s happy to do so in his own way.
The other major question posed by Phantom of the Paradise is perhaps the biggest question known to humanity, and it’s one that the film answers handily:
Just what is life all about?