Throw out "Armond White" during a round of cinematic word association and the director's name most likely called out in response -- "Spielberg" aside -- will surely be "Brian De Palma." No other critic currently working is as attached to his pet auteurs than White, who does an unequaled job of undervaluing their critical standing in order to then overpraise their work, acting more as a cheerleader in failing (or refusing) to chart the complications and difficulties of Hollywood directors whose artistic-political merits just might be less unassailable than imagined. But whatever the shortcomings of his tunnel-visioned auteurism, our man's nearly unconditional love for particular directors (the two mentioned above plus Altman, Boorman, Demme, Techine, Kar-Wai; directors who peaked before the 70s don't count since AW boringly lumps together the canonical: "[Most moviegoers] don't know the excitement to be had from real movies (which is to say old movies)") can often lead to idiosyncratic takes on their films, partisan as they are. The latest AW review of De Palma's The Black Dahlia (we'd provide a link of the review except Cineaste doesn't offer such links on their site, forcing one to buy the magazine) is surely in this idiosyncratic vein, positioning the film as thoroughly political in contrast to other recent neo-noirs, and calling attention to the film's subversive examination of the Hollywood dream machine despite its failings as a well-acted, well-oiled piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, the review is also stunningly incoherent -- we can barely make sense of it even after reading the shorter New York Press review of the same film that came out almost three months earlier. Still we'll try to tease out what AW's wisdom by cutting out the non sequitur-laced bullshit that dots his prose:
-- De Palma's sensitivity to the politics/film connection explodes what people think of as the noir genre. . . . The Black Dahlia is De Palma-personal; a consideration of the price paid by folks who live in the Hollywood environment either by working within the filmmaking industry or under the sway of movie mythology.
So far, so sensical. We'd maybe question the term "the politics/film connection" (aren't there many possible conenctions between politics and film?), but when Armond isn't going off the rails one usually lets him glide.
-- [De Palma] shows the political economics of the place by examining the way the cops perform, the civilians subsist, the ruling class rules, and the anonymous besotted dreamers get crushed.
Alright, now let's get to some examples.
-- Moviegoers confronting this strangely convoluted tale need to understand the background of De Palma's art and the movie fascination that led inevitably to The Black Dahlia.
The only thing convoluted here is Armond's review, which at this juncture forsakes analysis for pedantic backpeddling. We understand Cineaste reviews tend to be long enough to provide such breathing space for its writers, but Armond's decision to "school" readers in the history lessons of De Palma isn't one of gratuituousness, it's one of condescension. Read the last italicized sentence again if you don't think so -- the flagrant "need" is a dead giveaway. What follows is a waste of two paragraphs that barely skims the surface of De Palma's "political" background and completely circumvents the complications arising from his representations of women, violence, minorities, etc., etc. At the end of these paragraphs we get this: "To understand The Black Dahlia it is necessary to recognize that De Palma penetrates the Hollywood-noir genre, upending its conventions, emphasizing its social and political bases." Fine, for a repetitious statement. Now let's get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?
-- Bucky and Lee represent the L.A.P.D. as a social agency stressed between the area's racial antagonism and class-based priorities. They're introduced in the midst of a race riot -- not participating in the infamous zoot suit altercation but putting down the unruly sailors and soldiers who initiated it. (Although they arrest one Latino . . . ) Bucky and Lee's allegiances are torn. . . . Their roles in municipal politics are precarious.
Perhaps Armond's rolling with this, but we're not yet sure where exactly. We see how the race riots position Bucky and Lee within a racial quagmire, but how does class enter into it? What classes do the sailors and Latinos come from and how do the police stand in relation? How are Bucky and Lee's allegiances torn? We've been given statements but little evidence to back them up.
-- This is one of the few movies to answer the rarely unasked but fundamental political question: 'What makes a cop?' . . . When the precinct chief is angered by a cop's inconvenient display of scruples, he shouts, "You are a political animal!" . . . De Palma sees every character as a political animal -- and that's the way to see The Black Dahlia.
Treading water. More talk about politics and the film's political awareness but few concrete examples of how this works.
-- As Bucky's career succeeds, his friendship with the platonic couple Lee and Kay rescues him from the blighted habitat of his German immigrant father: Bucky experiences the splendor and respite of Lee and Kay's well-appointed, white-walled bungalow. He's moved up in class, but the higher he climbs, the lower he has to fall.
Finally. But this small nugget -- replete with a mistake ("platonic couple"? Lee and Kay definitely seem to be lovers; if Armond's referring to platonic in the sense of "ideal," then he's off there, too) and a groaner of a last line -- comes at the very end of a lengthy, rambling paragraph that 1) states Bucky and Elizabeth Short are "political animals [that] reflect the different choices available to denizens of the capitalist dream capital" only to 2) return to mentioning De Palma's subversion of noir tropes (with a brief allusion to "character psychology and social history") and 3) mention Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography that brings us into 4) a tangent on Robert Towne's Ask the Dust. Getting dizzy?
-- Bucky is drawn to [Madeleine Linscott] by more than duty; he's fascinated by Madeleine's toying with sexuality as he himself is split between Lee and Kay's sexual arrangement [what happened to "platonic"?]; he's intrigued with the dark side of his own libido and political duty. It's a familar De Palma theme, especially well dramatized in Body Double but [sic] that fantasy film wasn't based on a real-life horror. . . .
And on and on he goes, further showing off his complete understanding of the De Palma oeuvre by haphazardly bringing up Casualties of War and Greetings for no analytical or critical purpose.
-- There's every reason to view the Elizabeth Short tragedy consistently with our current tabloid involvement with crime and scandals. De Palma uses the past as a political mirror of the present. The issues of sexual exploitation, racial unrest, industry corruption, and police brutality still haunt us -- as much as Short's gruesome remains haunt Bucky. Our modern mortification is symbolized by the stuffed dog Balto that guards the foyer of the Linscott mansion.
Phonograph needle off the record -- we're stopping right there. What the fuck was that? We understand what Armond's attempting, but the way he goes about it leaves significant room for improvement. We'll buy that De Palma is satirizing both tabloid sensationalism and upper class decadence (the latter in the form of the Linscotts), but is it really a "political" act to wag a finger at the buying and selling of lurid sex scandals? Is it also a political act to portray the rotting American aristocracy in the most cliched cinematic terms? As for the stuffed dog . . . wow. We thought it just might be a symbol of the Linscotts' sheltered, ersatz existence, but whatever you say, Armond.
-- A frightening, grinning clown's visage is a motif from Paul Leni's 1928 The Man Who Laughs . . .
You know what, we can't go on. Armond White's Cineaste review of The Black Dahlia is so unwieldy, so ridiculous, so blinded to the film's flaws (only mentioned in passing; the New York Press review blames them on the James Ellroy novel that is De Palma's source material) and inability to follow through on its supposed "political" ambitions, that its thesis gets completely lost. Towards the end White goes into great detail about the Elizabeth Short screen tests and how the film uses them to reflect back to the viewer his or her relationship to the immortality of images and the fame and desire they provoke in their subjects and audiences. What's interesting here is that White thinks this morality play and Bucky's own moral dilemma are portrayed in a politically conscious manner, whereas the Brooklyn Rail's Sarahjane Blum thinks the exact opposite (and most certainly would scoff at White's typically unsubstantiated claim that the film's "careful exhibition of sex and violence . . . entails a feminist consciousness worth further discussion.") Both views about De Palma's glorious mess of a film (which we liked, by the way) interest us, but the difference is that Blum's argument can be followed and understood point by point; White's argument, on the other hand, is a collection of unelaborated salvaging that he takes for granted his viewers will accept wholesale. One more sample just to prove it:
-- No scene better displays the sick side of cinema's appeal than the moment police officers convene to coldly watch Short's foray into mid-century erotica. It's a strange scene of cops watching porn -- a bizarre deconstruction of authority, hypocrisy, and insensitivity. In this precinct, even an earthquake (symbol of a society's moral tremors in Altman's L.A. epic Short Cuts) is observed with nonchalance.
Repetitious, inconclusive, dangling. How does the scene deconstruct authority? Hypocrisy? Insensitivity? For all the words White wastes (thanks for the Altman shout-out, totally necessary), we never find out. Which is a shame, because we thought White's gushing enthusiasm over De Palma's unappreciated genius might yield a kernel of cinematic knowledge. When does the next Spielberg film come out?