Pornography is fake realness, or real fakeness, whichever definition you’d like to give to recorded bodies engaging in objective sex while not actually having sex at all. Bodies don’t lie, but thankfully their owners can. In Brian De Palma’s Body Double, an A.M. tone poem that snaps awake in critical recognition of menace and guilt, the submergence ends like that when meek, lonely, claustrophobic actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) realizes there is a wolf in his life’s den. Without a relationship or a job or a place to live, he’s found himself in what Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont would call “the middle of a mystery.” The key to solving it and letting some dignity back into his life is to infiltrate the Californian pornographic netherworld.
De Palma’s vision of a XXX factory isn’t burdened with a grain of “realism.” The Adult Film Group studio is an erotic 80s candyland, more Minnelli than Damiano. Below the auditioning room are sets facing off against each other, suggesting Porn is another efficient studio system. (Here on 2012 it certainly is, albeit in the form of a million little studios.) In a succession of events that are almost too inexplicable to be called Dreamlike, Scully gets the job and is immediately working with Holly Body (Melanie Griffith, with David Bowie hair and never cuter), the hottest starlet in the business. The inaugural set-piece for Scully’s Orpheus descent into “The Other Hollywood” is a musical number with a pale faced emcee lip-synching to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” ushering Jake into a decadent glam bar accommodating the cake faced Fassbender ladies and ass-cheek leather daddies both. This is less a “movie within a movie” than a complete metaphysical breakdown, turning Jake’s progress into fever dream of crossing over.
“Relax” builds to an acid sound-spray meant to represent House orgasm, and De Palma uses it in Body Double at the moment Jake climaxes with Holly and Holly pretends to climax with Jake.
Out of the rogue’s gallery of provocative compositions (a phallic drill hanging down from between the legs of a killer as it speeds towards an unlucky woman is perhaps the most deliberate in it’s reckless feminist baiting) one visual prologue in the film’s earliest stages is easy to lose before repeat viewings practically bring it scuttling to the fore.
Needing a place to stay after finding his wife with another man (and, in an early sign of his patheticness, feebly exiting the bedroom) Scully crashes on the couch of a bartender friend. He wakes in the middle of the night. Much like the narrative to come, the couch crushes in on Scully, making sleep impossible. He goes to the window, peering out on Los Angeles in the morning. What we see (unless this is what Jake sees too) is a monochrome rear projection of the city’s famous freeways that could be from the 1950s, and was probably used in Thom Anderson’s essayic Los Angeles Plays Itself. He’ll spend a large part of his arc gazing at something fake through a window, so this is appropriate artifice, but there’s more to this shot than the Body Double material proper. Really, this is the Edward Hopper containment of anyone who has ever watched porno.
Scully could open the window and climb outside, stalk past the green screen and already be on the wild set of Adult Film Group’s “Relax”ed Body Shop. We’ve been here before. On the nights we can’t sleep, a quiet TV set waits for us. This is the Witching Hour gauze, a static Avalon. Those 50s roads (like Neil Diamond’s Brooklyn Roads only West Coast and grimmer) could melt into whatever gives the insomniac a precipice of cubed eros. Rapper and would-be Spiderman Childish Gambino says, “There’s a world you can visit if you go outside.” By that same sentiment there’s also a world you can visit, self-defeating and empty but a world nonetheless, if you switch on Cinemax at about 1 a.m. When relatives have an illegal cable box there’s the harder core, channels that didn’t exist back home, with names like Spice and Playboy. The women on this higher echelon were the progenitors of cataclysmic result. Watching them was humanity’s relapse.
So, the unreal cars driving under threat of the Blacklist beyond Jake’s vision were something to watch, a sensual faux-marble. Mistresses of the airbrushed and oiled were those cars too. Body Double has a sub-textual beauty in its detours to a 24/7 Tower Records where the beleaguered clerk tells a renter that yes, they do carry Holly Does Hollywood, and here are all the formats it comes in. (If Hopper was alive in ‘84 he would have painted that scene.) It grasps the tactile lunar hypnosis of erotic programming, as when Jake, utterly spent after failing to prevent the murder of a woman who burned his loins to cinders, watches a cringe-worthy sauna interview with a past-her-prime XXX Madame. The interviewer, a greasy, grotesque combination of Henny Youngman, Al Goldstien and Morton Downey, Jr, asks randy questions about her production company and what she loves to do. She tells him that she considers herself an “expositionist.” He corrects her: You mean an Exhibitionist. These are the little gaffes between people pretending to be into each other that can also be found in Playboy Channel talk shows and that De Palma lasers with a midnight archivist’s precisian.
Pornography bleeds into Body Double’s everything. From domestic strife to a cheap horror movie, XXX is waiting for citizens who thought they could do better.
In 2003, thrillingly unclassifiable Japanese band Boris released an album called Akuma no Uta, with a cover and musical duration bearing direct parallel to Nick Drake’s classic Bryer Layter. The music is an assault of heavy noise rock that couldn’t superficially be more different than Drake’s moody songs. Yet the cover of Boris’ album gets us to question the possibility of music under music, layers of emotional truth that transcend the boundaries of history, pigeonhole and genre.
Listen to Drake’s record before diving into Boris. Listen to the song “One Of These Things First,” arguably his most heartrending statement of purpose. A relationship to these expositionists at night is comparable to a relationship with someone that intensifies before flaming out and fading away. It’s easy, too easy (such is the plague of being human) to fixate on certain people and want them to be the rear-projection window. Drake’s song is about a loner who will remain a loner and has a last chance to deliver a eulogy of the bond that could have been with someone who won’t willingly see him anymore. The only new encounters he’ll have with them now are the ones thrown to him by his subconscious mind in dreams.
Drake unspools a torrent of smote potential that he alone caused and can never formally atone for. “I could have been your pillar, could have been your door, I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more…Could have been your statue, could have been your friend, A whole long lifetime could have been the end.”
Go back to Boris. Listen to “Ibitsu,” a furious piece of music. It’s the explosion that waits feral behind every one of Drake’s bleak words. “Ibitsu” surges on the controlled chaos of Wata and Takeshi’s harmonious guitar thrash sucked into the anti-gravity of Atsuo’s drums. This is the anger that Drake, not a pillar or a statue but a pulse demon, can only keep bottled in his song.
“Ibitsu” was always underneath “One Of These Things First.” He’s not a pillar or a door. He “could be yours so true. I could be, I should be through and through.” Across the album, which begins with nine minutes of sludge drone that might wish to be "At Last," Boris offers the din of a failed through and through.
“Ibitsu” is the starring in porn, or being replaced by a porn actor in the room where you sleep every night. “Ibitsu” is a leviathan beneath the “One Of These Things First” in Scully’s claustrophobic meltdown on the set of the glam-vampire horror programmer he will soon be fired from. “I could have been your pillar…” is the mellow sadness when a rich scumbag backhands the wife he plans to murder, and the expression of “you knew this would happen” on the face of Scully’s live-in girlfriend (Barbara Crampton) when he catches her. Buck naked with a hand cupping her breast, Crampton makes a lasting impression from mere seconds of screentime, the visual equivalent not only of “Things First” but the Grateful Dead lyric “I know you Rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
If seeing a Boris song as a Brian De Palma film is a wacky thesis, Body Double invites it. De Palma constantly forces us to sharpen our eyes and minds. He reminds us that popular culture is a moveable feast. The rear-projection window with B&W cars is an image that speaks and moves pre-conceived mountains. A merely coincidental listening of the Boris album couldn’t have come at a better time, because rediscovering that De Palma shot inspires thoughts about cultural feedback to dance in zero gravity like Connie Nielson in his beautiful Mission To Mars.
Like De Palma, Boris can’t sit still. Their output runs the musical gamut from dark ambient to hard rock to crust punk to sludge metal to drone doom to pop. Like them, De Palma keeps a personal through-line in his excursions to horror, thriller, comedy, satire, western (The Untouchables), sci-fi and crime. The rear-projection window shot tells us that human dreams are limitless when creation takes hold. This is more than Greil Marcus’ “High-stakes criticism.” This is high-stakes perception, as no-net as one of the long shots in his 1998 hurricane morality tale Snake Eyes.
Once, a young musician wrote a mournful song about the final thoughts one has before going their separate way, extolling one last desperate gasp of all the things that could have been. Decades later, an avant-garde Japanese band fashioned a response of sorts, or a cathartic unearthing of the old work’s secret rage. The songs by Drake and Boris reach across the spectrum to a divisive eighties thriller of the hardest R-rating imaginable. They lock hands. Night has a way of not ending sometimes.
Mainstream movies about this reverse undercarriage industry run from the tragicomic (Boogie Nights) to the crime procedural (Wonderland), but even in the best of them (and the worst-Zack And Miri Make A Porno) a quiet relief anchors the participents. No matter how gifted the performance, actors like Julianne Moore and Heather Graham need to double the illusory manipulation of their craft to avoid a barely perceptible look at the top of the ladder when they’re still spending mock time at the bottom.
I wish there was a magic bullet for every one of Sebastian Gutierrez’s travesties. If you haven’t heard of this charlatan troll count yourself golden. This hack is making an ongoing anti-saga containing the films Women In Trouble, Girl Walks Into A Bar and Elektra Luxx, centering on retired pornstar Luxx (played by Carla Gugino, a fine actress who would know better if she wasn’t the spouse of the “auteur”) and her ensemble of smugly overwritten hangers-on and stalkers. The bloated “tour-de-force” dialogue is bad enough, but Gutierrez and company (which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt revealing his bad taste) deeply offend when showing footage from Luxx’s titles. The actors’ condescending “bad acting” and exaggerated facial twistings betray their inherent disrespect for the “Ibitsu” of the business where they’ve succeeded.
The first Hollywood representation of the porn industry I can dredge is the orgy Moses’ decadent followers partake in during the prologue of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments. DeMille treats every pale, half-naked woman splashed against rocks and pillars as Golden Calves he is too guilty to admit his worshipful lust for. The way DeMille frames the revelers in blocked, distant rotations predict the paradoxical kid-glove infatuation that Paul Thomas Anderson explored with profundity and this Sebastian Gutierrez guy shamefully disgraces.
Body Double makes no apologies for itself or The Other Hollywood. De Palma’s visuals aren’t as lush as the Panavision Dressed To Kill, the tracking shots and zooms are blunter, the 1x85 ratio recreates aesthetic concessions and compromises suffered by an industry hounded in the eighties by conservative governors and a new disease that ruined the party for everyone involved. His staging of Holly Does Hollywood, the film where Griffith’s Holly Body performs a telltale dance, includes a tracking shot (viewed through Scully’s fast-forward of the tape) that journeys from dancers to a couple seeking privacy in a backroom to Holly alone, hands aloft, eyes shut tight against us.
Body Double is partly a film of response and wallowing. To fantasize a technically challenging movement in adult product, De Palma, a career-long victim of critical and popular marginalization, is quietly positing XXX as a medium capable of advanced cinematic panache. After the (then) failure of Scarface, the pickets from feminist groups and charges of misogyny for Dressed To Kill, he was as close to the rim of popular acceptance as one can be without falling off. De Palma was XXX, he was Boris. He couldn’t cast real-life porn actor Annette Haven as Holly Body, yet he directed Griffith to be able to say “cum-shot” and “water sports” as casually as if she were asking for the salt.
Holly Does Hollywood is an elegant “Ibitzu,” aided by a Pinno Dinnagio score that recalibrates Tangerine Dream into the giddiness of not simply forthcoming sex but unlocked revelations and caveat dread.
Jake looks back through the rear-projection window when he watches Holly get herself off and has a flash of genius. This is only a meager portion of why Body Double is the best movie ever made about these movies, but it’s a singularly universal moment, this realization, this snap through frequency that all of us have experienced at Avalon Blue’s naked hoof.
2: Notes for a scrapped book proposal
Theme and core of this book [never given a title] is how actresses watched for hours on stolen TV time gave X an idealized, matronly, fuzzy corked and tweaked early impression of sensuality, desire, bisexuality. X probably saw these women at too young an age and they became a community to him, the disparate movies both soft and hardcore were viewed by X at a time when he was obsessed with unification over his entire frame of reference, thus every film, TV show, book and fantasy he consumed and exhaled needed to somehow know and compliment the other, as there was then enough chaos in X’s “real” life that some conspiratorial fabric somewhere was longed-for. He made mere adult programming into more than it was or could ever be. Cut X open and his biography is being raised on a.m. garbage. A basement in a lush Connecticut home was his little-Hitch-in-prison or Young Dickens on the street. These women, with buttery names like Monique Parent, Shauna O’Brien, Kira Reed, Tracy Ryan, Amber Smith, Sarah St. James were his pinup queens and heroines, their own fearlessness in seducing women an inspiration to his own suppressed and ruthlessly knotted sexuality. And X was thinking about this shit in middle-school! Sitting there, a stammery louse, beginning his triumphant winning streak of alienating so many people on his twisted road and musing “the world where Reed and Parent reside is where I want to be,” (hopefully chapters can convey that X didn’t want a Playboy mansion lifestyle, he wanted to be spirited away by Monique Parent Airlines to the tropical kitsch of Passion Cove which frequently guest-starred all of his goddesses. The place was always warm and California lazy, and yes, he wanted to sit with the women in the fountainous Jacuzzis but only to rest his head on their breasts and sleep, and then confide in them and hear from Monique or Kira that he shouldn’t be ashamed of his thoughts, his eccentric himness, and they would sit shoulders bunched and tell X to approach the husky, handlebar mustached janitor and stubbly gym teacher that made him dread being called to stand up in math classes and science classes and classes where they showed movies on bulky double-decker equipment) and he sat through the movies no matter how enervating they became-the plots were always about scams or they were crime thrillers or sub-Updikian dramas about affluent couples experimenting with experience-just to spend more time with them and memorize every Vanilla line-reading and expositionist power in Parent’s ginger fire, Kira Reed’s gal next door persona, O’Brian’s chill, St. James’ girlish discovery. There was always a part of themselves they weren’t giving, X sees now. It has to fit somewhere in the book, maybe an epilogue, where X became Facebook friends with some of these women and saw their daily postings about ongoing life away from Passion Cove, Life with all its ups and, you know, deep downs. No “illusion” was shattered, of course. X is a weird, weird person yet he is capable of unfogged reasoning. Those scenes between the fauxsex on Max late nite held the Midnight Aura, exclusive to material that is aware it will only be watched at night, likely by just one person. It wasn’t simply the programming proper X looked forward to, it was the pageantry, the cheesy music over silhouetted bodies with gleeful voices whispering “next…next…next on Max.” That was all part of the Aura. Look, he never beat off to these, It’ll have to say in the book even though nobody will believe it (must emphasize: X is a Weird Individual Chump), could be X was taking mental notes or making an archive for a life he didn’t know he wanted to live yet. He just dunked so much of this through his eyeballs. He’d be a national treasure if the nation was royally fucked up. The narratives were nothing, just enough to be something, the barest of bare essentials. A gun and a splot of blood on a dude’s chest. And then maybe another chapter, or possibly a footnote, telling of all those tapes borrowed from friends, passed under desks, Blue Contraband, one tape kept switching from The Goods (woman/man/storage unit) to friendly programming, PBS because friend’s aunt was always checking in on him. From storage to the Public Access lunch menus. Probably deserves own little digression in another chapter, too good for a footnote, though who knows. Tapes tapes tapes, ducked under bedsprings, the talk show with Julie Ashton, questions nobody is really asking about what really happens in the bedroom! X just sat there and soaked this in. It was interesting to him. Body Double was the first and only movie he ever saw that saw the Midnight Aura the way he did, that broached the idea of this underground community, unofficial community and the pact between indifferent programming and a.m. watcher. When Jake sees the sauna “interview,” the Holly trailer, when he goes to Tower Records to get the VHS, those scenes just weren’t supposed to be in movies, X understood what De Palma was doing. The Midnight Aura, the a.m., the You Pass By A House While Walking By Yourself In A Small Town Dark And See Cerulean TV Glow Through A Window. What is being watched in there? Is the watcher still awake? Are you doing their watching for them? Body Double was on VHS too, lying around the house. X’s father told X he couldn’t see it but X snuck it one night on his shrimpy TV/VCR combo and later when he told his father his father didn’t care, he seemed a little proud actually, Good Kid. When X saw Jake lying on that ridiculous Lazy Susan bed in Gregg Henry’s chemosphere and saw the Expositionist woman and that tanned hairpeace X was reminded of those Connecticut nights and “Next on Max” and the tapes under his bed like kisses he would occasionally steal in the years to come. And there was a Tower Records near his Grandparents’ house in Connecticut where he would go late at night with his father sometimes, fond wonderful memories, his father upstairs in the Music section (X wasn’t into music yet) so X would slip XXX (lol) magazines off the top shelf of the newsstand and casually browse Erotique DVDs, the Tower was so laid back, Edward Hopper could have drawn a view from outside, Pop upstairs listening to Jazz on store-provided headphones and his pervy offspring sitting in plushy chairs holding Anchor Bay tins with the plastic-wrapped cheese underneath. And yes it was different with Scully because Holly Does Hollywood did have actual bearing on his life and future, but the focus in which he studied the commercial, bought the movie and watched to the pivotal scene was a mirror of how X regarded erotica as a pup. They were both solving mysteries, Scully a real one and X the mystery of his life and mind, a mind cursed with stampede visions and grueling fallout he would only wish on people who pissed him off the very most. The basement in Connecticut was only partly furnished, you walked down flaky stairs to the laundry room, a constant Boris-like clatter, walk across concrete to a guestroom with a fold-out bed and a chair where the watching took place. Different from the chemosphere fuckpad, but just as sheltered. Outside miles of privately owned land and moon milk, galloping deer. Remote. Relax. A place where X built himself a castle of dragons and kings. Body Double could have been made for him-when X was seeing it for the first time he thought the fucking movie was made for him, was being made as he watched it minute-to-minute. He didn’t want to leave its world. X viewed it so many times that year (and he didn’t even consider himself a De Palma fan yet), was probably the only squirt in middle-school to be constantly humming a pop 80s hit without realizing it was a paean to homosexual ejaculation.
Book might attempt to place Monique, Kira, Shauna and even Holly together in a night owl café, the kind of communion really only possible in a fictional reality of weird wired crossthoughts. Boris is the house band, naturally. Merzbow could be there too with his loops and birds. X would be at another table with his heated laptop, trying to figure out why they all mean so much to him. That could hypothetically be a xasthur though. Better write an essay called “Body Double’s Avalon Persuasion,” which doesn’t make a lick of sense but sounds really cool as a title regardless. X was watching the AVN awards on a narrow distant cubicle of a movie demand channel recently and through all of Lisa Lampanelli’s dick jokes he thought “this is that gathering, except I don’t know these people.” The new industry failed De Palma’s vision of them. Nominees were parody after parody; interesting new starlets like Jessie Andrews weren’t being placed at the tail end of Ophuls-dirty camera sojourns. The banter between the likes of Jessie Jane, red carpet host Dave Navarro (?!?), Taylor Vixen, Tera Patrick and Evan Stone were aggressive and unsettled. They didn’t have the Frostfire confidence as Holly and her real-life body doubles Ginger Lynn, Dorothy LeMay, Honey Wilder, spoiler Traci Lords, Jeanne Silver, the would-be Holly Annette Haven. Since sex has got death’s back like “Ibitsu” to “One Of These Things First,” X wondered what the years of fake realness had done to them. As Nick Drake, Brian De Palma, Boris, even Holly Body could tell you, death is an eternal symphony of It’s Too Late.