quarta-feira, 19 de novembro de 2014
The Movie No One Saw but Everyone Loves Forty years later, how Phantom of the Paradise became legendary. By Peter Gerstenzang
Forty years later, how Phantom of the Paradise became legendary.
By Peter Gerstenzang
on October 31, 2014
It bombed everywhere but Paris and Winnipeg. It's hard to say what was worse, the reviews or the grosses. Christ, it didn't even matter that it opened on Halloween night, 40 years ago today. And, if you think about it, you can understand why. In 1974, rock movies just didn't combine the Faust legend with horror, humor, action, and pathos. They also didn't reference more films than a caffeinated Quentin Tarantino on a talk show. Still, though most papers bashed it with brickbats and people stayed away in droves, Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise is celebrating its anniversary in classic style. This past summer it had a spectacular sold-out showing at the theater where it debuted, and it was recently released as a deluxe two-DVD set. Its soundtrack, with songs by '70s singer-songwriter, Paul Williams, is beloved, a sort of Saturday Night Fever for freaks. Daft Punk consider it their favorite film and were inspired by it (and plucked Williams) for their Grammy-winning last album, Random Access Memories. This celluloid story of an immortal impresario, the deformed freak whose music he stole, and the girl both of them wanted, has undergone a strange metamorphosis. Phantom, which was never actually popular, has become legendary.
One of Phantom's unknowns didn't stay that way for long. Jessica Harper, the plush-voiced Phoenix from the the film, who went on to star in the horror classic Suspiria, has some thoughts about why this once-reviled film developed such an obsessed audience over time. (It even has its own festival every few years. "Phantompalooza," of course.)
"I often wonder why movies like ours develop cults," says Harper, who is the love interest in the film. "I think, in part, it's because we're like the rescue dog that nobody wants. The film comes out, it gets rejected by people, and it's up for grabs. And it's something that you can call your own, if you want. It's yours. People like to form communities around things. So why not a movie?"
Harper also relates a vignette as touching and strange as this horror-comedy itself, about one of its most devoted fans.
"I met a woman in Los Angeles who is one of the Winnipeg 'Phantom-oids,' and she said she had a very abusive mother. She would take this poor girl to the theater where the movie was playing, leave her there, go off, and get drunk. Then pick her up eventually. So this poor child was babysat by our film. Interestingly enough, Phantom became her solace. It's where she went to feel safe. And she was really gripped, emotionally, by this movie, needless to say."
Finally, Harper says there's another, more universal reason for the film's lasting appeal.
"The music. Paul wrote an amazing score for this film. Beautiful ballads like 'Old Souls,' which I sing, plus rock. There's a brilliant variety of genres."
Williams, one of the most successful songwriters in pop history (he co-wrote "Rainy Days and Mondays" and wrote "An Old Fashioned Love Song," among many more), took a huge risk with this film. Primarily a ballad writer, he not only penned other styles of music for Phantom, but also stars as the Faustian Swan, who owns the Paradise theater and has a nasty little secret. He's immortal. Or is he?
"It's always been intriguing to me that Brian came to me to play Swan in this kind of a movie, considering the kind of work I was known for at the time," says the diminutive musician, who in the '70s was the blond, shag-cut King of MOR. "It's amazing he would pick the guy who co-wrote 'We've Only Just Begun' to pen songs for a film that was supposed to be depicting the future of rock. But Brian saw something in my music that made him think I could span the various kinds of genres in the film. Plus, the great treat for me was that I was able to satirize the kinds of music I love, like the Beach Boys and '50s stuff."
For anyone who cares about this campy horror film or who will hopefully see the new print, it's riveting to hear Williams talk about the era in which it was made. There's something about the freedom to let the movie evolve and left-field casting choices that makes you hunger for that less money-driven, more enlightened time.
"As the script was evolving," says Williams, who has just published a self-help book, "Brian first thought I should play Winslow Leach [the masked title character]. And I had to say, 'Brian, I'm not big enough to be that scary. I mean, a little guy throwing things at people from the rafters would be hilarious, but that's not what we need.' Also, throughout the movie, the Phantom plays his songs wearing a mask that shows only one eye. There's only one actor who could let you see just an eye and make you cry as a result. And that was Bill Finley."
"When you love something that the world ignores? You become impassioned!" —Paul Williams
Ultimately, the compact Williams was interested in playing Swan, the demonic owner of the Paradise, who makes and breaks stars like they're plaster busts. And this impish little devil could not be better cast.
What does the movie's musical auteur think accounts for the endless affection for the film? Williams agrees with Harper's theory, but adds a few ideas of his own.
"When I was up in Winnipeg for the movie's premiere, some awestruck kid asked me, 'Hey man, a guy selling his soul to the devil, did you make that up?'" Williams says, chuckling. "And I said, 'Well, no, there was this guy named Goethe who did that.' Still, I think that it's so mythologically powerful, the Faustian idea of a guy selling his soul, combined with the Dorian Gray element [Swan never aging]. And Larry Pizer's gorgeous cinematography is essential, too. That draws you in. But mostly it's our audience, who keeps finding the movie on their own, on cable or through friends. When you love something that the world ignores? You become impassioned!"
The late William Finley was very pleased with his experience playing the Phantom. I was lucky enough to talk to Finley about his role not long before his death in 2012. A longtime friend and classmate of De Palma's (they met at Sarah Lawrence College), Finley experienced the entire arc of Phantom, from its disastrous opening to its fanatical cult that grew over the next 25 years.
"Brian wrote the script originally in 1969," Finley told me. "He use to hang out at the Fillmore a lot and take pictures. And he noticed, as the '60s were ending, that we were starting to see a lot more preening self-regard by the frontmen of bands. And the kids having an unhealthy attraction to it. I actually think that Robert Plant was the original model for Beef [a musician in the film], but the character kept evolving. Still, I think Brian was very prescient about the coming of glam rock and the narcissism that came with it. He always had a good read on rock culture."
At the time, though, critics didn't seem to buy into De Palma's take at all, either as parody or straight-ahead horror.
New York Times critic Vincent Canby, a usually evenhanded if not especially hip critic, seemed to speak for many when he called Phantom of the Paradise "an elaborate disaster, full of the kind of humor you might find on bumper stickers and cocktail coasters." However, De Palma's lifelong booster, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, said the film "has a lift to it. You practically get a kinetic charge from the breakneck wit [De Palma] has put into Phantom; it isn't just that the picture has vitality but that one can feel the tremendous kick the director got out of making it."
It wasn't long before the derided De Palma would have his cinematic revenge. His next movie, Obsession, did well, and the one after that was a little flick called Carrie. Meanwhile, his crippled child, Phantom of the Paradise, is now being revived like it's Battleship Potemkin. That's not something you can claim about, say, The Towering Inferno, one of the biggest movies of 1974.
Williams, who is now working with director Guillermo del Toro on a musical version of del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth, in part because del Toro loved Phantom, has some final, rather profound words about the continuing love for the little movie he scored. The weird flick that was snubbed, scorned, and religiously reborn.
"I think I learned something symbolic from the original release of our movie that has stayed with me all these years," he says. "If Phantom of the Paradise had been a hit when it was released, even a modest one in 1974, it might not have grown the legions of fans we see today. I think that's because it hung around a while. And people still get that thrill of discovery, a certain pride of ownership about this movie when they find it. They feel like it belongs to them. And the big spiritual lesson for me? It's sort of simple. Don't ever write something off as a failure too quickly. You never know what is going to happen down the line."
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 14:28