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Brian De Palma and The Black Dahlia: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review


Friday, September 15, 2006

The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Whether you exalt or damn the films of Brian De Palma depends on how much you are willing, on a consistent basis, to accept imperfection. For every out-and-out masterpiece — Carrie comes to mind most immediately — there are years and years of half measures, compromises and head-scratching misfires. So, at the risk of reducing art to statistics, if one can posit an equation to figure out cinematic brilliance — say, TS + FM = CB, where T represents Thematic Strength, FM Formal Mastery, and CB Cinematic Brilliance — then De Palma’s films usually don’t compute, with one term conspicuously absent or unaccounted for even as the other two stay steadily in place. It’s as if, in locking all the pieces together save one or two, De Palma purposely leaves gaping holes in his twisted, self-reflexive (and, not infrequently, self-sabotaging) cinematic mosaics to draw attention to the elements that do work. No wonder that, forty years after his first film, the mere mention of his name spawns, among those who consider this a vital issue as per the auteur debates of old, those irreconcilable “style vs. substance” debates that lead nowhere and mostly miss the point, and fun, of his films.

Take for instance De Palma’s latest, The Black Dahlia. Both J. Hoberman and a friend/colleague have expressed disappointment that the film, to use Hoberman’s words, “rarely achieves the rhapsodic (let alone the delirious).” One can’t dismiss that point, and it’s even least among the film’s flaws. And yet there’s so much to admire in this gorgeous, ridiculous, irreverent, disturbing, incoherent mess of cinematic brilliance. The premise invites more than enough De Palmatic sleaze, based as it is on James Ellroy’s novelistic rendering of the infamous, grisly Black Dahlia murder that rocked Hollywood and, along with a thousand other scandals since, has come to epitomize the dark underbelly of the all-American obsession with the fame and glory of the big screen. In 1947 the Black Dahlia — a play on the contemporaneous film Blue Dahlia — was one Elizabeth Short, a struggling actress who was found slit ear to ear and disemboweled. Her case remains unresolved to this day, but Ellroy, De Palma, and screenwriter Josh Friedman use it as a starting point in uncovering the corruption of Los Angeles and Hollywood aristocracy. Detectives Bucky Bleichert (dull but serviceable Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (a sadly underdeveloped Aaron Eckhart), teamed up initially for a promotional boxing match, are assigned to crack the case, only to eventually become obsessed. If the corruption angle sounds unoriginal, it’s helped on the one hand by De Palma’s punchy, vivid, sepia-drenched Golden Age imaginings and customary tricks (Sinuous, omniscient tracking shot? Check. First-person point-of-view shot? Check. Film-within-a-film? Check.), which breathe life into the project. But it’s also hindered by Hartnett’s catatonic voice-over and a transparent performance by Scarlett Johansson as Kay — Blanchard’s wife, woman-with-a-past, and eventually Bleichert’s lover. As sexy as she is, she can’t help but come across as a teenager dressing up for a lavish high-school production. At the very least she pales in comparison to Hillary Swank’s femme fatale, a spidery bisexual and Black Dahlia look-alike whose rich, gonzo family is immersed in the sordidness.

But like the thespian hackery that passes for cheesecake sublimity in Femme Fatale, such amateurish displays somehow enhance The Black Dahlia’s creepy exploration of the Hollywood dream’s inevitable artifice, and it’s the crucial element that compensates for the too-polished sheen that hampers De Palma’s usual penchant for over-the-top sex, gore, and cinematic pyrotechnics. One major plot point, leading to an exemplary establishing shot, involves an L.A. housing development composed entirely of used sets — a metaphor as blunt as the Elizabeth Short audition outtakes and girl-on-girl stag films are genuinely disturbing (with De Palma as the lascivious maestro directing from off screen). The film’s grand theme of masquerading reality in an age of bloated, cynical showbiz comes alive with every seam that actually shows in De Palma’s uninnocent game of drag and dress-up. As The Black Dahlia becomes more befuddling in plot and generally synopsis-defying, it’s these clues and doublings that allow the viewer to create in his mind, whenever the onscreen action grounds to a halt, that platonic ideal of a De Palma flick.

Perhaps De Palma’s greatest consistent inconsistency is his endings: think of the disparity between the Lazarus shock of Carrie and the utopian sci-fi fizzle of Mission to Mars. And so The Black Dahlia concludes with not one but seemingly several expository speeches that mean to clarify, but only further confound those of us whose eyes happen not to have completely glazed over from endless tracking shots and period decor. Like so many De Palma films, it leaves one frustrated and slightly disappointed. But when compared to the ultimately status quo L.A. Confidential or even The Untouchables, an absolutely acidic aftertaste remains in the avoidance of a satisfactory catharsis. Another common complication when speaking of this maddening director: The Black Dahlia doesn’t solve the eternal De Palma dilemma, but it sure does fascinate.


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