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Film Essays

Blatant, Beautiful Liar: Brian de Palma’s Body Double

“You Can’t Trust Everything You See.” — Body Double’s tag-line

Most films work overtime to achieve a level of believability. It’s the primary job of the entire editorial department. From compiling the raw footage into a even whole, switching between angles to insure the smoothest transitions, to keeping track of the continuity elements of the film, the chief purpose of editing is to hide the inherent falsity of the medium. Whether we’re watching aliens hatching from eggs or a down-on-her-luck waitress, we expect to be lost in the reality of the film narrative. It’s like a contract between filmmaker and audience, an unwritten rule. Actors shouldn’t break the fourth wall and look into the camera; filmmakers should not do anything to jeopardize their audience’s trust. The little beauty we all depend upon called ‘suspension of disbelief’ is our end of the bargain, and we’re expected to use it every time we sit in a darkened cinema and beg to be transported to another reality—another consistent reality.

Which is why the kiss in Body Double is so genius.

Genius Body Double Kiss

Let me back up. Body Double is the 16th work of Brian De Palma, who is either the master of the modern thriller or a schlocky gore-whore, depending on your perspective. Released the year after De Palma’s controversial master-stroke Scarface, Body Double was De Palma’s most critically acclaimed film since 1973’s Sisters. Craig Wasson, who looks exactly like a cross between Bill Maher and Andrew McCarthy, stars as Jake Scully, a very personable peeping tom/struggling actor who accidentally witnesses a murder. How very Hitchcockian of him (and which director worth their weight in salt hasn’t done at least a subtle homage to Rear Window?). The noteworthy event comes when the film begins to unravel, deconstructing itself, its genre, and its entire medium as it unfurls.

Body Double is only one such film in a handful of films that does this, but it’s a particularly interesting example because its deconstructive elements can be easily interpreted as shoddy workmanship. It’s only when the unsettling tensions between what we saw (what the film presented us) and what we understand do not resolve that the true depth of the film comes into view.

Looking through a telescope

Using voyeurism as a metaphor for film is nothing revolutionary, but Wasson’s voyeurism is absolutely the core of Body Double; it lives and dies by his telescope. The film glorifies Wasson’s voyeurism and stalking, the camera following him as closely as he follows beautiful neighbor Deborah Shelton through a mall, eventually pausing to watch her try on panties. The narrative act of watching far surpasses the actual doing. This is reinforced when Wasson is literally struck immobile by vertigo several times throughout the film.

The film is always a step removed, a little too dreamy to be believable. The film forces us to extend our disbelief over and over, in more remote and fantastic situations. The infamous drill kill takes a bit too long, with a bit too much horrified screaming, and the voyeur sequences (where our heroine dances in front of the window in lingerie) are as silly as they are sweet. We simply accept these are moments of the narrative, ratcheted up by Hollywood and an over-enthusiastic director.

Drilling

There are two moments, then, that radically alter our perception of the Body Double universe. The first is when Wasson catches up to his pursuit on the beach, trying (and failing) to save her from a purse thief. The two inexplicably share the most exaggerated, ridiculous and stagey kiss in all of film. The actors are placed in front of a fuzzy green screen of the harbor as the camera swirls around their impossible kiss. The visual quality is a noticeable step down than rest of the film. Wasson steps behind Shelton and holds her straight from the cover of a romance novel, as she breathily pants, “No! Yes!” The moment is so fake and so staged that at this point the viewer is left with two options: denounce De Palma and the film as terrible, or begin to see the film as a comment on the medium itself.

Another Kiss

After Shelton’s infamous (although largely off-screen) drill-murder, the reality of the film unravels even further, its grip on itself loosening as Wasson begins to stalk a new beauty—this time a porn star (Melanie Griffith), further reinforcing the ‘watching’ theme. The film once again spins off into plastic fantasy as Wasson steps into a porno/music video for ‘Relax’, performed (no shit) by Frankie Goes to Hollywood themselves. Although the film had dipped its toe into un-reality with the kiss and the kill, this is the moment of pure surreality. As ‘Frankie’ singer Holly Johnson leads Wasson through an 80’s orgy of assless chaps and leather sluts, they even pass a faux Norma Desmond (a la Sunset Boulevard) descending the staircase.

As Wasson has his moment in celluloid glory, eventually laying Griffith on camera, the film’s falsity comes full-circle as the music from the kiss on the beach plays, the camera swirls and Wasson hallucinates that he’s making love to Shelton. The echo serves to remind us that the entire film has been a construction, a careful staging of actors, cameras and lights, shot and spliced together in sequential order, to convey a synthetic sense of reality. The story is no more real than Griffith’s orgasm or pleather chaps.

Geek Relaxing by Looking in the Mirror

Body Double ends with a lingering shot of blood running over a woman’s bare breast (part of a B-vampire movie Wasson’s character is starring in). This unflinching condensation of the two things American cinema is obsessed with, blood and nudity, sobers us from our fantasy. It ensures we are aware that film is a construct, albeit one we desperately want to believe in. Sometimes– and never more clear than in De Palma’s own work– film is a bloody, bloody collage.

End Credits

(If you fancy yourself a voyeur as well, click for the uncensored version.)

By Britta R. Moline  2/16/2011

For further reading on voyeurism: Peeping Tom

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  1. Pingback: From the Queue: Peeping Tom « Video Word Made Flesh - July 13, 2011

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