Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Passion of the Kill

Rachel McAdams in Passion

My mom used to go to a low-income-based psychiatrist, downtown Anderson, Indiana, when I was 15.  My sister and I always went with her.  We could have stayed home but we hardly got to go anywhere so we went along.  Mom was always begging us to go with her places, like she was going to lose her mind if we didn't go to the grocery store with her, or church, or this place.  So we would go into this non-descript five-story all-glass building downtown, up an elevator, down a gray hallway to the therapist's office, and we would wait with her until she got her name called, and then there my sister and I were, in a psychiatrist waiting-room with nothing to do. 

My sister ended up playing over at a little kid's table they had set up.  She was 8 or so.  After a couple visits, I finally found what I was supposed to find:  a big stack of New Yorker magazines on an end-table.  All the covers were graced with serious-minded cartoons, and there were hardly any pictures just lots and lots of text, but like I always did I looked for movie reviews.  I had a total love of movies, to the point that they were sometimes the only things that would get me through.  At 15, I would find ways to go to the movies by myself, riding a bike, taking the bus, walking, just to see movies.  And for the rated-R ones, I would beg and plead with my dad, who could barely stand me, and sometimes it would work.  One of my fondest memories with him is the two of us watching Apocalypse Now together in a big, ornate movie theatre called the Paramount downtown (not too far from the low-income psychiatrist office).  We were the only ones there on a Sunday night, and at that time movies had intermissions if they went long, so halfway through the palm-trees blowing up and Martin Sheen's hot-breath narrating and the smell of Napalm in the morning there my and dad I were, all alone in this plush half-deteriorated old-school movie palace, waiting for the movie to come back on, both of us kind of taken aback by the grand assault Apocalypse Now turned out to be.

I found Pauline Kael and Brian DePalma in that Anderson, Indiana psychiatrist's office where they based their therapy fees on a sliding scale  At the back of every New Yorker was Pauline Kael's byline, her strange voluptuous way of writing about and almost eating movies.  This was 1980, and she was head over heels in love with Brian DePalma at the time.  I remember reading her review of Dressed to Kill and just about losing it.  Here's a segment of it:

Over the years, DePalma has developed as an artist by moving further into his material, getting to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation. If he has learned a great deal from Hitchcock (and Welles and Godard and Polanski and Scorsese and many others), he has altered its nature with a funky sensuousness that is all his own. The gliding, glazed-fruit cinematography is intoxicating but there's an underlay of dread, and there's something excessive in the music that's swooshing up your emotions. You know you're being toyed with. The apprehensive moods are stretched out voluptuously, satirically—DePalma primes you for what's going to happen and for a lot that doesn't happen. He sustains moods for so long that you feel emotionally encircled. He pulls you in and draws the wires taut or relaxes them; he practically controls your breathing.  He knows where to put the camera and how to make every move count, and his timing is so great that when he wants you to feel something he gets you every time. His thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jeweled.

I had to see that movie, but the review was dated last year.  I didn't know how I missed it.  I had never heard of Dressed to Kill or Brian DePalma, but the way Pauline Kael conveyed all of it to you made you truly want to experience her experience of it.  In fact it was almost like she had gotten inside my head and found a way to explain the way I watched and worshipped movies.  Those words she was using -- "sensuous" and "gliding, glazed-fruit" and "insidious, jeweled" -- were a language I wanted to grab onto, fill my head with, my heart too.  It was the language of love and obsession. 

And then two weeks after reading that review I was at my friend's house.  He lived in this great big suburban castle in a beautiful plush neighborhood, so of course he had HBO right when cable-television was just getting started.  One day we were just hanging out and he turned on his TV, and it was HBO.  Suddenly there Dressed to Kill was, on-screen:  glittery magic door-knobs, voluptuous orchestral music, slow-motion without a reason for slow-motion, an art museum turned into a landscape of pursuit, a gigantic transvestite with ruby-red lips, black-coated, silver-blond wig wielding a razor at Angie Dickinson, a foul-mouthed prostitute and her geeky broken-hearted sidekick pursuing the aforementioned transvestite inside a subway train, etc.  Even though it had already started (we got in on the scene at the art museum), I recognized Dressed to Kill simply from the way Pauline Kael had described it in the New Yorker.  It was a celestial feeling, like discovering a new world, and for someone who lived a low-income kind of life, in the middle of nowhere, but with creative tendencies and a feeling of yearning always fogging up life's window -- here was clarity, here was art.

That's the way Pauline Kael showed me how to watch movies, using DePalma as her instruction manual. 

And so now, 30 odd years later, here's Brian DePalma's Passion, a redux version of Dressed to Kill in many ways.  Passion reunites DePalma with split-screens and  Pino Donaggio (the great composer who scored Dressed to Kill and many other of his late 70s and early 80s masterpieces), as well as with the insidious, voluptuous, glazed-fruit deliriousness of his movies.  Passion is beyond intoxicating, because it is bent on satirizing the intoxication.  You get caught up in the oddly brutalizing yet somehow bracingly aesthetic technique.  There's no logic or sentiment here, just movieness, a sense of what it takes to love movies put on display, without a lot of apology or even common sense.  If you don't get it, you don't get it.  If you do, you're in heaven.

Watching Passion, and witnessing Rachel McAdams' beautiful bitchy femme-fatale preparing herself for an evening of sex-games (see the photo above) only to be disappointed when her lover calls up with an excuse is both hilarious and frightening, an odd mix of humiliation, grandiosity and good old fashioned voyeurism.  McAdams loses it upon that call, wallowing in cinematic self-pity and fury, and you accept her bizarre antics without one peep, just as you accept all of the movie's bizarre antics.  Because it's a movie that's not about life, but about movies.  DePalma is parodying your need for verisimilitude scene after scene.  Passion's tropes are the tropes of a million low-rent, sexed-up psychological thrillers.  There's a white mask, a big glittery knife, a pretentious ballet, cockeyed camera angles in ritzy Euro-trash corporate hallways...  All of it has a deja-vu intensity on purpose, an Andy-Warhol awareness and evil charm that allows DePalma to do whatever he wants to and you still get a kick out of it, because it's not about anything other than what it is trying to get at.  In other words, Passion is absolutely about nothing, yet full of a feeling you can only get when you get the joke.

Thank God for Brian DePalma.  And Pauline Kael.  And movies that don't mean a thing and yet are a reason to live.

Which brings me back to 1980, and my mom always coming out of the mysterious therapist's darkened doorway, sobbing after paying what she could afford.  She never talked about what she said in there, or why she even was going.  My sister and I just took it for what it was.  She was crazy and we had to escort her through it.  We would walk out of the glassy building, back into our shitty car, and Mom would pull herself together enough to get the keys out of her purse.  We would go home.  I would think about what I had read, what Pauline Kael had given me, long, glittery paragraphs that somehow made going to movies transcendent enough not  to care what life was truly like right then.

Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill