09 October, 2006

THE BLACK DAHLIA, Jess Franco & Me...

As I watched Brian DePalma's maddening THE BLACK DAHLIA last night I kept wishing I was watching George Marshall's 1947 THE BLUE DAHLIA, from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler. The REAL deal, but a Dahlia of a different color. I most wished that DePalma had the guts to forego color altogether, even the slightly stylized scheme he employs and filmed it all in b&w instead of just the nudie reels the cops keep running over and over and over...
When I asked Jess Franco who his favorite directors were he immediately said "Orson Welles." No surprise there. Then he said "Brian DePalma" and I stifled a groan. But I understood what possibly attracted him to the director of BLOW OUT, SCARFACE and BODY DOUBLE, the last DePalma films which I felt had something exciting in terms of style. And what is Brian DePalma without STYLE? Decadence, voyeurism, Hollywood.

My mainstream filmgoing has gone down to maybe two or three times a year since the turn of the century. Why? I simply no longer enjoy the experience mainly because I don't like being trapped in a black box and forced to watch 25 minutes of of obnoxious previews played at FULL BLAST for movies I have no intention of seeing and then struggling to HEAR a film over those inevitable audience members who always seem to be seated directly behind me and are certain they are at home in front of their monitor and can chat their silly heads off. Stadium seating and Digital Sound? Thanks, but no thanks. When I do go it's just to get out, be with friends and discuss the movie we have just seen. In other words, to socialize rather than see a specific movie.
The reason I went to see THE BLACK DAHLIA is that my friends had heard it was so bad that it just had to been seen to be believed. As a die-hard Ed Wood fan that was reason enough for me to join them. And I made sure I brought ear plugs for the previews. When my friend nudged me to signal that the feature had started I opened my eyes to behold a neo-Wellesian crane shot down a 1947 Hollywood street set and was hoping the director would keep it going a la TOUCH OF EVIL. But then he cut. Knowing that the film had been chopped by an hour on studio orders and that it was a German coproduction partially filmed in Bulgaria [!], my last hope was for a kind of alternate universe epic of Le Bad Cinema and I wasn't disappointed. I have not read the James Ellroy novel on which the film is based, am no longer a DePalma fan and care little about the actual Black Dahlia case, which remains unsolved. What I did do was prepare myself by visiting the IMBD message boards for the film, which make the war in Iraq seem tame in comparison. People either love this film or HATE it. There's simply no middle ground to be found anywhere. I even posted there after seeing it.
I noted a prominent shot of a movie marquee for THE BLACK ANGEL, an actual 40s noir and the original title of Franco's VENUS IN FURS. I haven't seen THE BLACK ANGEL but it's based on Cornell Woolrich, a very important writer in understanding the evolution of Jess Franco's career. It has always seemed to me that his monochrome MISS MUERTE is more Woolrichian than Truffaut's direct Woolrich adaptation, THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, which seems rather tepid Hitchcock in comparison. And while DePalma hasn't returned Franco's salute it also seems that he's now regularly referencing Dario Argento rather than Alfred Hitchcock. A Hollywood exec once confided to me that Franco's SUCCUBUS has been screened more than a few times by a number of high powered Tinseltown writers and directors for outre inspiration. So it's understandable that Argento is a European "cult" filmmaker whom an Italian-American stylist like DePalma would turn to when another screening of CITIZEN KANE or VERTIGO would be just too much. I was also reminded that Jess Franco also made a kind of Hollywood mystery in his latest, SNAKEWOMAN, which references femme fatale Marlene Dietrich (TOUCH OF EVIL) and also has b&w porno loops from a bygone era at its center.
I found a kind of Zen relief in the fact that THE BLACK DAHLIA makes no sense. Understandable, considering that the studio knife descended. But will the inevitable "Director's Cut" DVD clear anything up? I also took considerable solace in the numerous phantom ladies laid out for display like glittering, slutty prizes. There is no "story" in this film, no "acting", no direction and yet it has way too much plot (and not enough), completely over-the-top histrionics performed by players who seem as clueless as we are, while DePalma now seems to be able to use his camera as a kind of X-Ray which doesn't so much photograph things as see through them. While our homicide detective protagonist is little more than an animated mannequin around whom the "action" plays like the last frenetic scenes in Godard's ALPHAVILLE when the image keeps going into negative as the very Noirish Eddie Constantine escapes the technological city. It's not really a film noir, it's something else altogether. Perhaps a fractured critique of Hollywoodland and its deliciously corrupt legacy of illusions. After all, we're all decadent voyeurs obsessed with Hollywood murder mysteries, aren't we?
Then next time I talk with Jess Franco I'll have to remember to ask him what he thought about THE BLACK DAHLIA.


Mirek said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review of THE BLACK DAHLIA, with its connecting points of reference to Tio Jess. I find myself much in the same situation as you, Robert, regarding going to see films in theaters these days, though I stay away for different reasons (much of contemporary cinema doesn't interest me; the cost of a movie ticket, etc.). I will see the new James Bond movie, CASINO ROYALE, however. We know there's a point of reference to Tio Jess here, too: His great admiration for DR. NO, which he reviewed as a critic upon its release. As one would like to ask Jess about THE BLACK DAHLIA, one would also like to ask him about the Bond series and whether it's lost its soul, heart and charm with each passing film. Conversations with Franco would be captivating. We know that.

Robert Monell said...

Thanks for your comments, Mirek. I will have difficulty going out to see another Brian DePalma film after this and feel that you can't really make a FILM NOIR in this day and age trying to copy the style and using voiceovers like the old ones. You have to do it like BLADE RUNNER, reconceptualize it within another genre. And I do agree with Paul Schrader that FILM NOIR is NOT a genre in itself, rather a style which cannot perhaps exist in our information age. In the same way Bond, for me, didn't make it out of the 1960s. The first CASINO ROYALE (which is available on a terrific DVD presentation, btw) really kidded it to death and made it impossible to take it seriously. Now, if they let Welles direct that one, instead of just appearing as Le Chiffre, that would have been interesting. Franco was a friend of Broccolli in the 60s and hit him up for money several times and arranged a loan from him to Welles so he could finish CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. FILM NOIR and BOND brought a sense of style to a more innocent world. In our present world of total moral ambiguity they are like the old Universal Monster models (which I collected and appear in Franco's SUCCUBUS), quaint artifacts but totally irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Great read Robert.

For the life of me I cannot see what people see in DePalma but I still give the fella a try now and then.
After watching the trailer for BLACK DAHLIA I knew I would not be seeing the film anytime soon and after reading your post it's doubtful that I ever will. So many better films to see and see again. I liked the poster art though. After seeing it I pictured a little girl asking her mother what was on the woman's face.

Your post about Franco's admiration of DePalma reminded me of a an amusing video interview I have with Welles, he was laughing over his inability but to desire to "sell-out."

Damian P.