Teenage Frankenstein Revisited
Travis MacKenzie Hoover on Phantom of the Paradise

How do you solve a problem like De Palma? One gazes in frustration at his oeuvre, unsure of how to assimilate it. You can’t ignore the visual facility, the erotic edge, and the willingness to stray from the bounds of good taste, but you can just as easily note the facile moralism, the paper-thin intellectual conceits, and the total inability to keep his nose to the grindstone of a thesis. You want to give him points for his mad skillz and his commitment to what is commonly referred to as “total cinema,” but you also fear that there really is no there there. At any given time De Palma can be counted on to mess up his hedonistic visuals with a moral so clunky—and, given the wanton immorality in which he generally wallows, hypocritical—that it sends his soaring visuals crashing to earth. One need only think of Blow Out or Scarface to note the work of a man totally in denial as to why he makes movies—a man who commits a crime and then expounds on why such an act is completely wrong.

There are, however, two notable exceptions to this trail of strangled lyricism and half-assed pontificating. One is the more muted and theoretically satisfying Casualties of War, a Vietnam film that develops an ethical thesis at the expense of those virtuoso passages for which his supporters have always loved him. The other, of course, is Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which manages to be angel and devil in equal portions—the binary opposition of De Palma picture and De Palma words finally brought together to create a harmonious whole. Harmonious, of course, does not necessarily mean correct, and there are serious flaws with the film’s central argument about the morbid commercialism of Seventies rock. Contemporary signifiers often float when they’re turned into historical objects, and the things that our man deplores have been flipped over into positives he either couldn’t imagine or imagined all too well. Still, it’s the one De Palma movie that’s both worth arguing about and persuasive in its argument.

To begin, one must cross-reference the film with the historical referent that serves as its structuring absence: the Sixties. This is the lost paradise De Palma invokes in detailing the fallen world of mid-Seventies rock, the would-be utopia that has now collapsed into the death-and-glitter cesspool of 1974. Whatever may actually have happened in the decade, it’s clearly the object that has been lost by a world that can now sustain something called Death Records. The label serves as base of operation for a satanic producer/executive named Swan (Paul Williams), who stands in for the reaper who rang down the curtain on peace and love: he’s a man who exists to defile innocence and core human values, starting with an altruistic star who has the nerve to defy Swan’s right-hand-man, Philbin (George Memmoli). The sense that something has been lost is inescapable, that it’s been corrupted by grotesquely commercialized hands.

As we shall see Swan makes it his business to take beautiful things and destroy them. Not only is he responsible for a nostalgia boom (the dead reasserting themselves in the present), but the music itself is soaked with death: his Fifties act, the Juicy Fruits, open the film with a song about a singer who commits suicide in order to become a salable legend. And when he hears the beautiful music of Winslow Leach (William Finley), he can’t help but do something ugly with it: namely, rip it off, send the author to jail, and mangle it with the help of a grotesque shock-rocker named Beef (Gerrit Graham). There is no rhyme or reason beyond profit or sadism, other than that, as Swan will repeatedly say, “That’s entertainment!” Curiously, his audience really doesn’t notice; they’re one with their puppet master, thrilling not just to staged brutality but also the actual death of Beef onstage when Winslow, now an escaped and disfigured man, sabotages the show and electrocutes the singer.

De Palma does his damnedest to get the milieu correct. Smartly, he turns Death Records employees into Hell’s Angels–style bikers: a reference to rock’s greatest disaster at Altamont (and by association, the Rolling Stones, who did their most to sell out their Sixties ideals for Seventies profit). And his work with composer Williams and the set and costume designers do their best to evoke the apparently bankrupt music world of the then-current decade, which of course has more to do with theater than music. The theatrical element—crucial for a film that centers on a music palace called “The Paradise”—is the number one citation for the degradation of the music scene. What upsets the filmmakers most is that any jerk in gold lame and platform shoes can be a singing star with the right razzle-dazzle, as the unadorned musicians of the previous decade were being swept off the stage for Alice Cooper and his obnoxious bits of business.

But De Palma is outside the phenomena to which he refers. In his thirties by the time of the film’s making, he’s no longer the target audience for such grotesqueries, and this means he views them through a glass darkly—to the film’s benefit and detriment. In one sense, he’s got the right vantage point: at an age where one is no longer so susceptible to music-industry hype, he can see what’s been lost and mourn it proficiently. But he’s also blind to how the stuff is actually being used—that is, how that theater can be transformed into something positive. Such was the case of contemporaneous rock god David Bowie, whose camp spectacle and fey androgyny struck a resounding chord not just with the musical hoi polloi but with people genuinely marginalized by the music mainstream—by which, of course, I mean gays and lesbians.

Thus a movie that looks back on the rock-as-theater of the Seventies—as does, say, Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine—might have something different to say. That film, too, makes mention of the assassination of a rock star (a faked one, anyway), but this time the audience is too into the fantasy to enjoy the “real-life” death of their ersatz Ziggy Stardust, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’s Brian Slade. Here, the will to play dress-up and make theater isn’t about corruption and death, but rather about identity creation and playful sensuality. And it’s also the start of something larger: “our revolution will be a sexual one,” states Slade, and the film makes the connection between Seventies flamboyance and gay camp (and gay liberation). The film even manages to see the period as a lost paradise, its framing device being the reportage of Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) from the hopelessly straight vantage point of the Reagan/Thatcher Eighties. From this set of requirements, how does Phantom do?

It turns out that De Palma sees similar things as Haynes does—but from a negative viewpoint. On the most obvious level, there is the matter of Beef, that vocalist and defiler of Leach’s cantata who also manages to be a limp-wristed stereotype. Despite his incongruously macho stage presence, he’s a curly-haired nelly who, when trouble rears its head, decides to make tracks to “my mother’s in Philadelphia.” This gratuitous insult is more subtly encoded in Swan himself, a genuinely androgynous figure with long hair and flowing clothes who, if not actually homosexual, certainly seems less than standard straight. Leach and Phoenix, however, cannot register as anything but healthy heteros. While Leach is too meek and stumblebum to pull off the beautiful-boy pose (a matter made irreversible by his disfigurement and descent into phantomhood), Phoenix is generally reduced to woman-as-spectacle. Notably, when Swan romances starstruck Phoenix, it’s not to actually win her: it’s to have her killed in spectacular fashion at their televised wedding ceremony. Like the gay narcissist of legend, he’s mostly in love with himself.

This would normally end the discussion, but it’s possible to still see De Palma’s genuine position peeking up from his idiotic bigotry. His main point is that that spectacle—so essential to the camp experience—is reliant on large sums of cash to be pulled off on a mass-media level. And to raise that kind of capital, you need people who nearly always have a venal agenda. De Palma is mostly mourning the once honest experience of self-reliant singers and bands who didn’t depend on the sound and fury that others provide for them. And it’s this latently DIY attitude that results in a stalemate between glam haters and glam lovers. On one side, there is the sense that the show compromises the sincere one-to-one communication of singer and audience; on the other, the love of another “sincerity” that communicates from other elements. Neither side is exactly wrong, but the economics of the situation make a complete siding with either a little difficult.

As effectively as the director develops his anti-grotesquerie thesis throughout the film, there’s no denying such imagery’s pervasiveness throughout the film. One can’t imagine the “mature adults” of the day knocking off work early to take it in—it mostly belongs to the kids, and its success as a cult item pretty much cements this truth. It’s an anti-spectacle spectacle, a damning criticism of Seventies rock that embodies all of its “worst” tendencies and yet upholds them with brilliant craft and design. It’s a movie that can only appeal (and has only appealed) to those it intends to undercut: the people who find the sight of a made-up rock band lopping off the limbs of its audience a breathtaking high. One can hold against Phantom of the Paradise that it sketches its malaise too well: it’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing.