Saturday, September 30, 2006

You Say Dah-lia, I Say Day-Lia

Brian DePalma has returned to the mainstream (ish) with The Black Dahlia. Welcome back, Bri.

Now, I'm a bit of a DePalma fan, but I'm massively aware that, like Cronenberg, you have to acquire the taste. If you don't, it's only the mainstream fair that gets your attention. For Cronenberg, those films were The Fly and Scanners. For DePalma, they were Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible.

If these are the films you know their makers for, it goes without saying that I think you're missing out of some fascinating cinema. But that's a rant for another day.

The Black Dahlia is DePalma doing one of those accessible movies he does from time to time to fund a career of interesting misses (the saucy Femme Fatale, the joyfully bonkers Raising Cain). I love that he does them, not just for the fare they lead to, but also for what they are. And yes, cards on table, I loved Black Dahlia.

Still, there are some preconceptions to tidy up first.

Yes, it may be easy to compare this film to LA Confidential - same source novelist, same noir-ish Hollywood setting - but it's closest recent relatives are more unusual.

Far From Heaven and Down With Love.

Both films were slavish recreations of a particular style. Great, entertaining films that totally - and without irony (or, at least, any that wasn't there already) - embraced a long gone style.

Modern film noir is best known, I guess, through films like Chinatown and Body Heat. (I'm ignoring the sex-thriller mutation that followed with things like Basic Instinct.) But modern noir always seemed to want to be credible. It wanted to take place in the real world, more or less. And for me, that made the genre less interesting.

Away from Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, those 40s flicks with their voiceover heroes, flashbacks and pervading, unspoken sexuality, we eventually lost some of the richness of style. LA Confidential is a great, great movie - but it's almost a period drama, a procedural, rather than a noir.

The Black Dahlia has no such trouble.

DePalma grabs hold of the noir style with both hands - to embrace it, rather than to shake it up. The voiceover is utterly hardboiled, the flashbacks razor-sharp. Every character is in 'a film about a murder', they're not living it for real, they're in the movie. But again I say this is not intended ironically. It's just that, maybe, the style gets across the senses the way 'reality' and 'facts' never could.

(It's worth noting now that I have no opinion about the 'true story' the book and film is loosely based on. It's a work of fiction for me, and was watched as such.)

Aside from the more modern flavours of bloody violence, F and C words and nudity (more on these in a moment), this is a period movie as if it were made at the time. Dahlia's cast have been perfectly selected for a vibe that just screams 40s Hollywood. Hartnett is splendid -

Hang on. Let me type that again.

Yes, Josh Hartnett is GOOD in a film. With much of the smugness knocked out of him, he's a terrific leading man for the genre. It's unbelievable. But when his character puts his hat on for some post-coital, in-bed conversation, you realise how right he is. I may never think it again, but on this one day...he's ideal.

(The hat, by the way, is a symbolic gesture, too. After sex, he's back to work, questioning a suspect he just happens to be sleeping with.)

Scarlett Johansson, of course, always looked like she'd been cut out of 40s celluloid anyway. Nobody else so immediately carries with them the white-blonde hair, the pout, the curves, and that ice-cold-but-scalding-beneath attitude.

The same is true of Aaron Eckhart, who again feels like he's been beamed here from a Big Sleep casting session. His biggest flaw is limited screen time - as the character whose mind is torn apart by the Dahlia killing, we needed to see a little more of him, and it definitely feels like a scene or two got snipped. That aside - powerful.

Only Hilary Swank separates herself from this crowd. Unlike the others, she has to pull on her character like an outfit. She wears it well, but there's always a tickle that she's 'acting in the style of' rather than finding herself intrinsically part of the genre by nature. It's still a fine performance, but - not unlike Ewan McGregor in the aforementioned Down With Love - it comes from a gifted actor, rather than 'a star', and you can feel her trying.

Still, DePalma's the real star. The film is filled with his style, and yet not overwhelmed by it, as is so often his greatest flaw. As with the Untouchables or Carlito's Way, the director figures out when to tone down the flourishes and let the screenplay talk.

Than again, he also knows when to turn his own volume back up. Who better to employ film-within-film voyerism? (And how wonderfully creepy that the director himself plays the voice of the director heard in our dead girl's screentests!)

Anyone who's seen Hostel will know all about the limits of cinematic gore, or lack thereof. But showing a thing isn't, on its own, enough. Hostel's violence caused little reaction from me, save the odd shrug. "Prosthetic," I yelled. "Editing trick!" Because it may all be well-executed, but the technique itself...dull.

DePalma's camera, meanwhile, is never dull. His photography, editing and movement can have a visceral effect on the viewer, and here you WILL find yourself flinching, even turning away from the screen. Not because it's more gratuitous than Hostel, but because it's better made.

So there's tension and pain and voyerism and style. What of the director's usual bugbear - the coldness of his characterisation? Critics often, and usually with good reason, call him a technical filmmaker. Someone interested in technique and never emotion. And in the films where he's written the scripts himself, that certainly feels true.

(Ironic really, as his self-penned films really ARE the most personal. Taking autobiographical elements - photographing his mother having an affair - and scripting them to then be filmed.)

But with Josh Friedman's screenplay, we hover instead between style and substance. But, I say again, this is a movie about a case, it's not the case itself being filmed. Noir isn't first and foremost a character study. But it IS a study of characters.

Contradictory? I don't think so.

This isn't a genre that tries to get into the mind of someone you've never met, some new and layered character. Instead, it shows you a collection of people who represent aspects of our natures. It gives you men repressing their sexual desire. Women teasing it out - effortlessly, because in the end we're all just barking dogs on a leash, and ridiculously open to manipulation.

There are the rich and crazy people, and lives of secrets, rebellious daughters and tempting wives. There's masculine aggression - oh boy is there masculine aggression - and feminine sensuality. (This is, for the record, not a sexually explicit film. But it is the sexiest thing I've seen in the cinema for a while. The smallest gestures - hands and eyes - speak huge, horn-inducing volumes. Ladies, gents, take a partner. You will be steamed up by the time the credits roll...though you won't necessarily feel good about it.)

In the end, then, it's like the horror genre. It's about pulling bigger, grander truths, rather than filming the 'real'. And in this film we get a deliberate, willful, almost child-like insistence that the film WILL be made this way. To hell with 60 years of genre development.

So, while it will remain unappreciated by some audiences, and certainly by Oscar, this is, no question, cinema of WORTH.

Whether it's too your taste is something else...

Certainly you'll want to concentrate. Minor characters, quickly-mentioned names, all will come into play for the final revelations. Pay attention. I left wanting to see the film again right away. Just make sure that it's for the right reasons. Word is the screenplay was compressed significantly from the version David Fincher had, at one time, intended to shoot. Between that and the sense of scenes being removed or shortened, the pace is brisk (though not hurried), and a few more minutes would not have hurt.

Still, I had to see LA confidential twice, too - to make all the connections. So maybe I'm just too dim for noir. Hell, even Chandler himself never worked out who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.

Me, I like the gangster movie. James Cagney, The Public Enemy. A genre that, actually, has undergone far less reinvention since it's arrival in the 30s. The Godfather maybe tried to legitimise the character side, but with Scorsese's Goodfellas and DePalma's own Scarface 'remake', it was still the same kind of movie - attractive and frightening, violent, blackly funny, and forever based around a big central performance.

In the gangster film, being alone is dangerous. And everyone lusts for MORE - more money, more power, more stuff. Thing is, the more you have the more alone you become. It's an inevitable, fatal cycle. I love it.

Gangster films - they still make 'em like that. Old-style noir doesn't really happen so much. So take the chance and see The Black Dahlia. You might not get along with it - it's certainly polarising audiences - but it's still easy to be impressed by the achievement.


At Fri Oct 13, 08:07:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

My God, it's been a while since I read your stuff. Excellent as always!


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