Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Black Dahlia

It's almost underwhelming, now--De Palma-philes were prepared for an event, and The Black Dahlia, to my mind anyway, doesn't feel like one. It's clearly the most "commercial-minded" of De Palma's films since Mission: Imposible. That film has slowly revealed to us some hidden beauties over the years--we'll have to wait and see if The Black Dahlia does likewise.

The trouble (trouble?) is that it's actually a good genre film if you ask me. If Joe No-name were the credited director, people would (or, hypothetically, should) be saying it is a nice yarn, for all the limited positivity of such a statement. I don't understand the negative reviews, or rather, I can't put myself in the mindset of their magnitude. The movie is convoluted, sure, but it's hardly impossible to follow. Its overall shape is nice and rounded--The Black Dahlia affects a lot of different tones (e.g., Fiona Shaw's performance set up next to a sultry Hilary Swank!?) and I think it accomplished this risky business competently.


Specialists of the genre can feel free to challenge me on this, but--it would seem to me that the neo-noirs of the 1970s (the first times that people decided they'd make films that were specifically noirs and not "crime movies" or the like) gave way to the neo-neo-noirs of roughly the last decade, where historical signification is highly important and must be coded as stylishness above style-neutrality at all costs (Devil in a Blue Dress; The Funeral; L.A. Confidential) ... De Palma is a perfect "hired hand" for this sort of thing! This form of 'history' being merely the constellation of the properly satisfying (not always correct) semiotic codes, a way of presencing our past (so to speak), this is precisely what De Palma does before he even worries about the meatier questions that consume him as an artist. And the workings which come from the genre and (I can only assume) the Ellroy novel, wherein Josh Harnett's character has to reconfigure events and images he's already seen but (he realizes) has drastically misunderstood and wrongly evaluated ... that's a straight-up De Palma trope. Of course, from the sampling I've done of negative reviewing, it seems that some people are disappointed that De Palma didn't do more of "his" techniques, no bold and baroque flourishes (which I suppose were wanted to merely embellish and intensify the kewl genre trappings?). I empathize with this brand of disappointment--but I wonder why there were so few such BDP defenders with Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale, generic failures that were actually quite impressive films full of De Palma goodness?

So this is where I feel bad wishing that there were something more from The Black Dahlia. On its modest terms, it's perfectly fine--ten or twenty years from now, maybe the film won't appear to be anything too special. (FYI,
Keith Uhlich makes a worthy early case that it is special.) But neither will it--would it--appear a blight on De Palma's or any comparable filmmaker's filmography. I'm not saying the film is devoid of interest for fans, that it is 100% a "job of work" and nothing more. But my impression upon first viewing is that it's accomplished studio filmmaking made by a man exceptionally well-suited for this project, with only minor interest in terms of the De Palma vision, worldview, or stylistic development.

9 comments:

Noel Vera said...
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Noel Vera said...

You might have read this already, but there's an interesting discussion of the film here:

Matt Zoller Seitz on The Black Dahlia

Anonymous said...

Zach, I was counting on a little more nuance from you. The "accepted wisdom" says it's neo-noir (whatever that is...it usually means a piece of shit with voiceovers that has almost nothing to do with noir -- and I grant you that Ellroy is riffing on Laura) but The Black Dahlia is doubtless giallo -- as Gary Needham says:

"The giallo literally begs for psychoanalytic inquiry and at the same time stages both the "analytical scene" and the "classic symptoms." As usual, this staging occurs through the conduit of femininity but in some cases—as in (almost) every Dario Argento film—masculinity becomes the focal point. The typical Argento protagonist is the victim/witness of trauma who must keep returning to the scene of the crime (the Freudian "nachtraglichkeit" or retranscription of memory..."

It's all there -- opera, grand guignol and scads of hilarious perversity -- DePalma finally made his pure giallo.

Zach Campbell said...

Anonymous--sorry for disappointing you. (Sheesh, people really don't seem to like what I've been posting lately--maybe I need a blog vacation?) I hadn't really thought of giallo, but you're right, it's there before our eyes. I'll spend some time considering what this means.

In lieu of my lack of nuance, will you accept as a token the fact that I didn't write the film off, and explicitly said I'd need more time to think about it--this is just a preliminary judgment of mine?

marcelo said...

I haven't seen the film yet (gets released here next week, I think), but here's an excerpt of what a brazilian critic had to say (Babel Fish might give you an idea of the rest of the text, although not much more than that):

The grandiosity of De Palma's cinema is marked by the fact that, at the same time he insidiously expose the guts of a system of production of images and meanings, he constructs his film rigorously inside the rules of a genre intimately linked to the period — the film noir.

Personally, although I deeply love De Palma's films — in fact, my love for cinema had not arisen before my contact with them —, I don't think much of his oeuvre will really stand out in the long term (at least not in the way a Godard film does and will probably continue to, not with the same sense of presence and urgency). IMO, in spite of his amazing visual proficiency and the modernity of his project, he's usually too tied to classical narrative to catch a glimpse of the future. — Of course, it goes without mentioning: he certainly is above most filmmakers of now and the past, for the simple reason that he thinks the image.

Noel Vera said...

IMO, in spite of his amazing visual proficiency and the modernity of his project, he's usually too tied to classical narrative to catch a glimpse of the future.

Ah, but the case is being made (please see the link to Matt Zoller Seitz's article above) that this particular film De Palma is breaking many a narrative convention, and I agree. Enough of them to annoy almost every critic, De Palma defenders included...

marcelo said...

Cool. I will revisit that line of thought after (or, you know, while) I see the film. =]

Speaking of narrative conventions (& sliding off topic), anyone wants to guess how many years until New Rose Hotel gets mainstream recognition? (Just kidding, that'll never happen. =P)

Noel Vera said...

after I see the film

Either it will open your eyes or piss you off big-time.

Zach Campbell said...

Marcelo, I would say that De Palma is like an American Godard working purely in the realms of fiction & genre--and, in addition, on a lower level. (I say this not because I don't cherish DP, but because Godard is ... well, he's unique!)

Noel, I'd hate to think that there's just something I'm missing about Black Dahlia in tentatively consigning it to the "yes, but..." pile ... that's why I'm going to try to keep an open mind and probably revisit the film sometime next year, on DVD.