Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Review: Body Double (1984)

    In which we learn that, if someone ever offers you a chance to house-sit a luxurious high-rise in L.A., you should probably not take them up on it…

    In the last scene of Brian De Palma’s Body Double, we are on a movie set with our main character Jake Scully, as he’s playing the part of a vampire menacing a young woman in the shower. He comes up from behind, moves his hand from her neck down to her bosom… and then the director yells cut. Jake freezes, and the actress leaves the frame, her nude double entering in her place. The scene starts back up, Jake bites the woman’s neck, and blood dribbles down her bare breast. Edited together, you could never tell it wasn’t the same woman. That’s the power of cinema, and by extension, the power of human perception. We see what we want to see, no matter what the reality behind it is.

    On the surface, Body Double could be seen as yet another riff on Hitchcock, but the true inspiration probably lies in a previous De Palma film, Dressed to Kill. In that, actress Angie Dickinson famously (and controversially) used a nude body double for the infamous opening shower scene. When word came out that it wasn’t actually Dickinson in the shower, there was a bit of an uproar, and the whole situation clearly got De Palma’s wheels turning. Being heavily inspired by Hitchcock, De Palma threw in elements of Rear Window and Vertigo, and bam… Body Double.

    Most consider De Palma’s film career to be more or less rip-offs of Hitchcock, only with added sex and violence. But he’s not ripping off Hitchcock so much as taking the baton and running with it - the sex and violence were always present in Hitch’s work, but De Palma doesn’t have to find any creative ways around any Hayes Code limitations of the day. De Palma always references many earlier films in his work (and not just Hitchcock’s), but it’s always for a reason: he’s not simply making an homage, but rather using them to make a comment. And here in Body Double, they become a central part of the narrative, as the whole film is essentially about movies and how they relate to our perception of the world around us.

    Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is a struggling actor in Los Angeles who seems to have hit rock-bottom. He caught his girlfriend cheating on him, he just lost a big part in a recent movie due to a crippling claustrophobia and, to make matters worse, he has no place to stay. Fortunately he’s just made friends with another actor, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), who just so happens to be house-sitting a bachelor pad for a wealthy friend. Sam has to go away on business and offers the house-sitting job to Jake, who gladly accepts. Before he leaves, Sam also points out a wealthy neighbor who’s prone to dancing naked around her bedroom, which is conveniently in view when looking from the pad’s also convenient telescope. “She’s there every night, like clockwork,” he tells Jake, and Jake soon finds a new hobby to occupy his time. Pretty soon the lady across the way - Gloria (Debora Shelton) - starts getting menaced by a formidable, scarred man, and Jake gets involved in a plot of conspiracy and murder.

    The central mystery is pretty easy to figure out once Jake accepts Sam’s offer (SPOILER Has Gregg Henry ever been in a movie where he’s not playing an asshole? END SPOILER), but the movie isn’t so much about solving the mystery as it is how it goes about portraying said mystery. Because the movie is literally about movies, and tricking people into seeing one thing when they are actually seeing another.

    The most obvious point of reference is Rear Window, and the idea of the peeping tom is a concept that translates very well to film. The audience is inherently voyeuristic, looking into the lives of the characters on screen. Hitchcock was definitely on to something with that original concept, and De Palma here takes it further into psychological territory. Jake’s obsession with the woman takes a dangerous turn when he begins following her around, always under the presumption that he’s “protecting her.” And then the film slides into it’s other Hitchcockian influence: Vertigo, in which the main character (who also has a crippling fear) falls in love with a woman who’s not actually real. Jake falls further and further into the mix once Gloria is murdered, and discovers that the woman he had been spying on was actually adult film actress Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who had been hired by the killer to do her nude dance and ensure Jake would be watching the room across the way every night, providing a perfect alibi for when Gloria is killed.

    The element that truly sets the film apart is De Palma’s style, which is heightened to a level as to make the audience unsure of what exactly is going on: are we watching the actual life of Jake Scully or a movie he’s been cast in? From the very first scene De Palma keeps us guessing with several stylistic flourishes, like pulling out from a sunset landscape to reveal it’s a matte painting being rolled across a studio lot. De Palma also indulges in scenes that are only possible on film, such as a reference that is a near copy of the famous scene in Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart kisses Kim Novak while the camera circles around them endlessly (although here Craig Wasson and Debora Shelton do a good bit more than just kiss). Also a scene later on where Jake visits a night club, only to take part in a full-blown musical number before it’s revealed (through a swinging mirror-door reflecting a camera crew) that he’s on the set of a porno shoot. Such flourishes call attention to themselves by severing the connection between audience and screen, reminding you that you are watching a movie - which is kind of the point of the whole affair.

    And that central conceit of “Is it a movie or not?” evolves into a deeper space, where the most fascinating conversation is to be had: that of what-is-real vs. what-is-perception. We receive and interpret signals through own tunnels of vision, connecting the dots of information daily to form what we perceive as real. But factor in psychological hang-ups like desire, anger and denial and those signals can be rearranged and reinterpreted to make whatever we want to see our own “reality.” Body Double explores the realm where the signals get misinterpreted, and links human perception to filmmaking in ways as to make them furthermore inseparable.

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