body double (1984)
De Palma's Body Double represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of what the director aims to achieve in his entire ouvre. It represents his deep-seated thesis on cinema that underlies his every work and, since its release, has only permeated into more of the culture than the bubble of cinema alone. It is a film startlingly in touch with its own era, barely into the mid-1980's and De Palma has already recognized and formulated a critique on what the decade means for the American psyche. If Scarface, Body Double's immediate predecessor and self-professed re-make of the Hawks classic, saw American excess and capitalism's effects on the machismo of an emboldened immigrant unleashed into a world that was his for the taking, Body Double examines the polar opposite of the American raised within its borders; domesticated, riddled with addiction and phobia, a real limp noodle all around. The film is not a self-professed re-make, though it is a re-make nonetheless. De Palma selects his favorite Hitchcockian elements as the skeleton for his story, but the film is a re-make of Vertigo that subverts the master's masterpiece in the same way that De Palma seems to view postmodern society subverting its individuals. In Vertigo we see similar elements of the phobic protagonist, the human weakness characterized through submission to psychological impulses be they fear, or love. In Body Double, the same is present, only this time not by turns of elegant and operatic obsession and tragedy but by cheese and over the top schlock.
Although, De Palma's films have never made much of a distinction between these estimations which, itself, is another pieces to the puzzle of his thesis. Films, in the De Palma world, are all dreams in the dreamscape of the cinema, little nightmares and sweet dreams that we tap into when under the hypnotic trance of those 24 flickering frames. This, of course, ties directly back to Vertigo. It has been posited and debated time and time again, in this film's cinematic parent, whether Scotty's experiences in the film's final act are meant to be interpreted as "real". We witness a series of somewhat believable events (with the caveat that we take spiritual possession as a given truth) followed by Scotty's descent into catatonic madness at a mental hospital, fade to black. The final act opens with Scotty inexplicably back to his old self and through a series of bizarre coincidences, we find a thrilling conclusion to our story. It seems too good to be true. So, is the finale of Vertigo a dream in the catatonic Scotty's head or not? This opens up a very simplistic, yet relevant, observation, and one at the core of De Palma: of course not, none of it's real, it's a movie. This consistent, Brechtian tactic of folding the material back onto itself over and over until we're not sure what is a dream and what is reality for the characters pops up in most of his films. Body Double refreshingly does not use this device, instead it uses the presence of film cameras and film sets to remind us that literally none of what we're seeing on screen can be taken at face value as realism. The very idea of taking elements of Rear Window and Vertigo and remixing them into the world of 80's pornography is deliciously perverse on its own (and probably would have garnered a "why didn't I think of that?" from Hitchcock himself), but De Palma's punctuated instances of pure cinema, consistently interrupted by displays of the apparatus, work to tear down our notion that we're witnessing anything but a theatrical representation; a heightened impression of life in motion. When the visual medium was relegated to the movie house, this notion may have seemed a bit quaint and fun. By the 80's we were consuming a larger portion of our information in the home via television. By the 2010's we're consuming the bulk of our information as well as entertainment in this way and so distanciation is of increasing importance. Is there any scene in any De Palma film that captures the essence of his career better than the Frankie Goes to Hollywood 'Relax' segment? We're suddenly transported into a musical porno where our lead character becomes another character altogether, De Palma recreates a signature shot our of Vertigo as our lead eyes the blonde from behind a door, she reflected in the mirror. As the door swings we see the film crew in the reflection, we're witnessing him acting a shoot. From there on our we see our hero acting as multiple different people. In Vertigo and Rear Window, the voyeurism is understood as part detective work and part innocent curiosity, the possibility of a twisted scopophilia is merely hinted at. In Body Double it is front and center. No better critique can be made of the 1980's than this sharp contrast of the same basic behaviors being read in vastly different ways. In Body Double the shaming of a social and sexual deviant points to that, unlike Vertigo's Scotty who looks out of duty and concern that later manifest into love, Jake Scully looks out of personal gratification, a lack of fortitude and falls in love out of desperation. Scully's complete failure to fulfill his gender role in American society is the ultimate disruptor to our identification, and the strongest Brechtian device in the picture.
He is also in sharp contrast to Tony Montana as the embodiment of emasculation. In a fitting depiction of surveillance in the 80's (an perhaps its ineffectiveness) Scully is meant to watch a titillating display from the safe confines of higher ground in a lavish apartment resembling a flying saucer. That he is unable to rescue the object of his desire in the over the top theatrics of the murder scene, being bested by a vicious dog only adds to audience disdain. Scully is also unable to triumph in the final fight, being saved by the very same animal. His very "solving" of the plot centers around his succumbing to his alcohol addiction and watching pornography in a sea of fast food wrappers. Unlike Vertigo, he has no resolution and never overcomes his fear, yet a surreal ending ensues anyhow where he is somehow given his job back and is able to play the vampire yet again in De Palma's final nod of juvenile glory fading out on a blood-soaked pair of breasts. The whirlwind of criticism of De Palma's era concludes as the credits roll. Ignored in its day, Body Double now stands as an all-too vivid mirror held up to the era.