Saturday, October 26, 2019

Phantom of the Paradise...or The Portrait of Swan

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Where to begin with The Phantom of the Paradise...?

From a purely old man, sentimental perspective I have to realize there are three films that entirely encompass the degree to which my late father and I shared a brain.

1.  The Groove Tube
2.  Raw Force

and 3. Phantom of the Paradise.  Number 3 being the first movie I distinctly recall my Dad saying "Don't tell your Mom you saw the movie, let's just say you fell asleep".  Certainly a passable excuse in the drive-in days when the more adult-themed movie was the second feature counting on the kids to have fallen sound asleep having exhausted themselves on the playground equipment directly under the screen combined with the late hour.

A concept that makes me laugh...

 However, from the artistic point of view I have to approach the film from a "classics" perspective. There is a saying, coined I believe coined by Lord Byron or Hunter S. Thompson that says "There is nothing new under the sun".  And studies have shown that is, in fact, the case as most literature, film, comics... you name it, really all follow the same 10 literary themes.  Genius comes in to play when those ten themes are expressed in ethereal ways that speak so directly to the heart and mind as to leave a lasting impression. You know, like Old Yeller or The Evil Dead.  And, of course, Phantom of the Paradise.
I was in first grade when Phantom of the Paradise was released, and so, it was safe to say, that unless I had unknowingly encountered the story of Faust during one of the weed induced "Young Democrats Club" meetings my parents hosted at their house when I was but a wee child this film would have been my first introduction to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. But, short of going directly to the source material...what a brilliant introduction, by a director/writer and cast in their absolute prime.

Brian De Palma.  I've found that people feel about him the way some  feel about Kubrick.  Which is to say, they love him or they hate him.  That is also to say, those who love him think "his shit don't stink" and those who hate him fail to appreciate his moments of genius.  I like to think of him as I think of ALMOST any artist, sometimes you nail it...and sometimes it nails you.  It is hard to love a man who made Phelps the bad guy in Mission: Impossible (excuse the spoiler but for fuck sake, if you haven't see that movie yet...), but, hard to hate a man who gave us Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Untouchables.  Hell, I'll throw Body Double in there as well.

But, if De Palma had made a single film, and it was Phantom of the Paradise, his place in the annals of film history would be assured.  Everything in the film is inspired.  Oh sure, it hops on the hood of car, twerks like a middle-age, saggy assed Miley Cyrus while screaming "It's the 1970s".  But, you know what?  It WAS the 1970s and this film is not only a fascinating, brilliant retelling of Goethe's Faust, but, it also serves as a glorious time capsule of when music was controlled by a precious few and distributed by the rulers of the musical kingdom.  A story of the music industry if Apple controlled music the way they do now... only Steve Jobs is played with more class by Paul Williams (Swan).

Our protagonist is Winslow Leach, played by the great late William Finley, who two years later would work with Tobe Hopper in the film Eaten Alive...which is a whole other essay.  Eaten Alive is not only one of Hopper's finest, but, perhaps the darkest film I've ever seen (I can only watch it every couple of years).  Winslow is a great composer, working on a whole cantata based on, you guessed it, FAUST.  Meanwhile, Swan is looking for the perfect music to open his Xanadu (I mean Kublai Khan's Xanadu not Olivia Newton-John's.  As an aside I was well into grade school before I realized she wasn't the sister of Elton John, but, then I've been told I am a dumbass).

Things take an ugly turn for Winslow when he realizes his music has been stolen, and being performed by the 70s equivalent to N'Sync.  Along the way, Winslow meets the voice he wants to perform his music... Phoenix, portrayed by the ALWAYS brilliant Jessica Harper.  By the way, although she is great in this film, as well as Suspiria and Shock Treatment, he performance in Pennies from Heaven seems forgotten by all except me.  That film still haunts me.

All this leads to a stunning conclusion played out on live television.  Members of the younger generation probably won't understand the gravity of that, but, in the days of three channels, live TV was an event.  Hell, the wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki is a prime example of massive events that didn't even require live coverage to alter the general zeitgeist.

Further evidence of De Palma's brilliance is indicated by the fact the he knew you can't have a film about the music industry without great music.  The soundtrack is amazing all these years later.  Some of the songs are not as heady as others, but, that is, after all, the point.

A beautiful transfer is available for viewing now if you have Amazon Prime, and I'll be picking up the Blu-ray after my next pay day.  Do yourself a huge favor and check it out, you'll be glad you did.  If you aren't feel free to yell at me at

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