In his classic novel "Doctor Faustus," Thomas Mann tunneled to the heart of the modern artistic imagination -- the curious, paralyzing sense that everything has already been done. Doomed to sterile repetition of what has gone before, crippled by the onerous freight of the past, modern art, Mann says, "avails itself of the apparently unvital, of that personal satiety and intellectual boredom, that disgust at seeing 'how it works'; that accursed itch to look at things in the light of their own parody; that sense of the ridiculous . . ."
Brian De Palma is the Doctor Faustus of contemporary films, a director long crippled by his obsession with Alfred Hitchcock, whose figure looms above De Palma's work like that of a punitive, brooding father. From "The Phantom of the Paradise" to "Obsession" to "Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out," De Palma borrowed promiscuously from Hitchcock's movies, everything from themes to story elements to Hitchcock's fluid, legato camera. The shower scene in "Psycho" became the elevator scene in "Dressed to Kill"; the mistaken identity in "Vertigo" became the double identity in "Obsession"; "North by Northwest's" Mount Rushmore translated to "Blow Out's" Bicentennial Philadelphia.
"Hitchcock pioneered all the grammar of the suspense film form," De Palma said recently. "Both in terms of visual ideas and story ideas. I've said that 90,000 times. Hitchcock made so many movies that he really covered all the good ideas. If you work in the genre, you're sort of compelled to use the best stuff that's around." The result, too often, was empty imitation, a bored exercise of technique that paraded its own absurdity, a visually exciting aura wrapped around what Mann called the melancholy, aristocratic nihilism of anti-art.
With "Body Double," De Palma makes the breathtaking leap from pastiche to style, from surface to deep, luxurious texture, from homage to rebellion. A ravishing cinematic critique of "Vertigo" and "Rear Window," it's a letter from De Palma to Hitchcock. A letter to his father.
When De Palma talks of Hitchcock, he still emphasizes points of esthetics -- composing the frame, getting from A to B. "What Eisenstein is to montage Hitchcock is to visual storytelling," he says. "He puts the camera in the right place, he ties you in as the witness to the event, in a way totally unique to filmmaking. The fact that I like to photograph beautiful women -- that's sort of endemic to my work. It's something my eye responds to. Hitchcock liked to photograph beautiful women, too."
But beneath the engrossing surface of Hitchcock's movies lay a dark heart pulsing with cynical acid. Hitchcock's various biographers have told how he treated various actresses with gruff, sometimes nasty contempt -- it was, they theorized, his way of punishing himself for the sexual urges he felt for them. Only once did he make those feelings known; and when Tippi Hedren, the star of "The Birds," rebuffed him, he tortured her emotionally -- he even sent a birthday present of a small coffin containing a doll of Hedren to her young daughter. Hitchcock's characteristic strategy was to allure us with erotic images of his blond Valkyries, ripe but unattainable, then to punish us for our sexuality by making them suffer, a vision that, by the time of "Psycho" and later "Frenzy," became viscerally explicit. By making us share his morbid fantasies through the force of his genius, Hitchcock located the sexual pathology lurking in his audience.
In "Body Double," De Palma is an enfant terrible scandalizing his parents, goading Hitchcock for his repression. The film refers most directly to "Rear Window" and "Vertigo": As in "Rear Window," the hero spies on his neighbors (here with a telescope rather than a camera's zoom lens); as in "Vertigo," the hero thinks he's fallen in love with a woman who is eventually murdered, when in fact he's been tricked by a lovely impostor. But De Palma becomes what Harold Bloom has called "an avatar of the perverse," a Puck swerving and skewing Hitchcock to serve his own purposes.
If the thrill of the spying in "Rear Window" stemmed from the sexual tenor implicit in voyeurism, "Body Double" brings the carnal purport stage center: Jake, the hero, watches a woman perform a masturbatory ballet with the blinds open. Where Hitchcock snickered at Jimmy Stewart's fascination (we all know what he's looking for, heh heh heh), De Palma ushers these feelings out into the open: Jake, an actor, rehearses his line for a porno film -- "I like to watch" -- and when he asks, "What are we watching?," the producer sneers at him for his "method acting."
"Vertigo's" Kim Novak was a typical Hitchcockian ice goddess -- her statuesque charms begged for the bedroom, but her aloof manner bespoke the cloister. For Novak, De Palma substitutes Holly Body, a flaky, gum-snapping porn queen who couldn't spell "cloister," an exaggerated cartoon of Hitchcock's subjugated desire. Not incidentally, Holly is played by Melanie Griffith, Tippi Hedren's daughter, the girl to whom Hitchcock sent a coffin; in "Body Double," she's made to stand for all women, who are, in De Palma's universe, invariably whores, from the murder victim, who (implicitly) married for money, to Jake's girlfriend, whom he finds in a whee-for-all with another man in one of the movie's opening scenes. This, De Palma says to Hitchcock, is the way you really saw Tippi Hedren; this is the image you punished yourself for.
Harold Bloom has noted, in the context of poetry, that the history of fruitful influence is "a history of self-serving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism . . . ," an idea that applies equally to film. In form, "Body Double" is a wild sendup of Hitchcock's style, a brilliant joke; that De Palma has finally come to terms with Hitchcock is confirmed by the freewheeling brio that has been infused into his technique, a sardonic, outrageous yet artisanal style tailored to his theme.
Consider the already infamous drill sequence. Through his telescope, Jake watches Gloria, only this time he notices that a nefarious Indian who's been following her is in the bedroom, using an enormous drill to burgle her safe. De Palma cuts back and forth to Jake's reaction as Gloria enters the bedroom; he calls her on the phone to warn her, but the villain springs forward and begins to strangle her (with a quick close-up of the telephone cord biting into her neck). Jake runs to her house; Gloria struggles free, at which point De Palma's camera travels down her back to show the drill, again in close-up, poised near her flesh. It starts up and rips into her. De Palma cuts to Jake, back to the drill catching in the sleeve of Gloria's kimono and to the drill's cord as it strains away and finally pulls out of the electrical outlet. Jake is locked out, but finally enters the house by throwing a rock through the window; the Nasty Indian puts the plug back in the wall, and slowly approaches Gloria, his drill whirring. Jake is attacked by the watchdog; the drill, in close-up, descends; Gloria, in close-up, screams; and Jake watches the drill bit, spattering blood, poke through the ceiling from the bedroom upstairs.
What's remarkable about this sequence is not its raw content (you could see that in any spatter movie), but the exquisite way De Palma manages a montage of some 80 shots; unlike Hitchcock, who used suspense to build up to a murder (suspense is a bomb that doesn't go off, he said), De Palma builds suspense into the murder itself. As Gloria escapes again and again, and Jake comes agonizingly close to saving her, the sequence replicates the infuriating impotence peculiar to nightmares; and the action's disorientation -- you don't realize where Jake is, vis-a -vis Gloria, until the drill comes through the ceiling -- artfully evokes nightmare as well. Such mastery suggests the impossible idea that Hitchcock, in fact, imitated De Palma; in "Body Double's" best moments, you wonder who was the teacher, who the student.
"Body Double" takes place in and around the skin-flick subculture -- the atmosphere of the movie fluoresces with images from the porn world reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, accompanied by the soft-core piping and cooing of Pino Donaggio's score. Jake reacts to these images with naive, childlike wonder -- he's played by Craig Wasson, who, amidst this paganism, preserves an extravagant innocence that makes Jimmy Stewart look like Boss Tweed. These feelings don't get him in trouble; rather, it's the shame he feels about his "peeping" that paralyzes him, that keeps him from calling the police -- a shame he's made to feel by the villains of the piece (the cops and the murderer himself).
The blame for the carnage, then, falls on the repression that was so essential to Hitchcock, the dirty spot he so persistently rubbed. Unlike his earlier movies, which merely Xeroxed Hitchcock's style, De Palma here attacks the substance underlying Hitchcock's images, subverts his precursor with a vision of unbridled, uncensored sexual energy.
De Palma's relationship to Hitchcock might be seen as a great Freudian drama, an Oedipal struggle for identity. It's only appropriate that De Palma would repress Hitchcock by exploding repression itself; indeed, in "Body Double," he pokes fun at his own thralldom to Hitchcock with stylistic quotes from "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Obsession" and "Blow Out." "Body Double" is an essay on artistic influence, but it's also more than that -- it uses pornography, which succeeds precisely because it's forbidden, as a way to question those taboos that make it forbidden, those taboos that undergirded Hitchcock's work. Pornography exists because civilization is inherently repressive; "Body Double" is a sort of "De Palma and His Discontents."
When De Palma says that his next project will be "a kids' movie for Disney," he's partly joking -- how can I next confound my critics? -- but something is revealed in the jest. For where Freud imagined a life of sexual maturity in which the mind triumphs over its demons, De Palma seeks salvation in a return to that stage of infantile sexuality where anything goes. In this way, "Body Double" is a search for origins, a quest for innocence that is romantically American.