Interpretation Trumps Inspiration

Rather than merely join the chorus of those who dismissed Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, and rather than cast a dissent from the general critical favor accorded The Illusionist, I’ll respond to critics I enjoy and respect whose perspectives on these movies differ significantly from mine.

This is, to some degree, an act of self-doubt. I disliked both films and have no difficulty enumerating their faults. But part of me fears I didn’t open myself adequately to the movies, or watch them closely enough.

Most importantly, though, these essays from other critics do a better job articulating and developing the movies’ themes than the filmmakers do. These writers see great things in The Black Dahlia and The Illusionist. I see them, too, although I think they’re in raw form in both movies.

The Black Dahlia

That obscure object of desire: Mia Kirshner in 'The Black Dahlia'At The House Next Door, this generous, insightful review makes me wish De Palma had made the movie that Matt Zoller Seitz thinks he did.

In his essay, Seitz writes:

“One of the filmmaker’s most ambitious and formally complex films, The Black Dahlia is, above all else, a tragedy — and not just for the ... Hollywood actress ... whose unsolved 1947 murder-mutilation in served as the basis for countless movies and books ... .”

I’m a De Palma agnostic; I allow for the possibility of his great screen artistry without believing in it. I like much of his work in The Black Dahlia — particularly the tensed restraint he shows with the titular corpse, saving it for a hallucinatory flash with the scale all wrong — but overall the movie feels rushed. While individual shots or scenes are well-paced, there’s a relentless forward momentum through the plotting, as if De Palma were impatient to get to the end. The Black Dahlia has no room to breathe, and as lurid revelations pile up on one another at the end, everything is infected with ridiculousness. The movie, clocking in at a compact two hours, could have easily used another 30 minutes to let impressions and suspicions settle and congeal, and to let things unfold at a more leisurely pace. That half-hour might have allowed the movie to accomplish what Seitz claims it does — to let the impact of its events be seen, felt, and understood as a tragedy.

Fundamentally, the problem lies in a conflict between the source material and the director. The movie is based on the noir novel by James Ellroy, whose smash-mouth prose is ill-served by a technician and image-maker as skilled and deliberate as De Palma. When the director luxuriates in airborne blood and teeth — an Ellroy staple — he’s violating the novelist’s frantic spirit; Ellroy doesn’t dwell on dental injuries past noting them, and he sure as hell doesn’t care about visits to the dentist. It’s as if De Palma’s pauses are misplaced — within sequences rather than between them.

The two men operate in very different ways. Ellroy’s torrent of overripe words accumulates to form a torrent of plot, which eventually accumulates to form a dense mass of corruption and loss; any given sentence or moment or episode is meaningless outside of the context of the whole. De Palma, as Seitz demonstrates, can be a frugal filmmaker, investing individual shots with great meaning:

“De Palma translates Ellroy’s dick-swinging dialectics into his own, decidedly more sensitive aesthetic, with its alternately subjective and omniscient camerawork, attraction-repulsion to brutality, and simultaneous indulgence and rebuke of the male gaze.”

For me, a lot is lost in the translation. The craft of the shot takes time and energy away from what should be that tragic cumulative effect of the plotting.

I keep returning to the 1997 adaptation of Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. It is sturdy and workmanlike in its construction and execution and has no pretension to art. And it’s far more successful than The Black Dahlia, constantly moving forward, rarely dwelling, and always keeping its eye on the whole.

The Illusionist

If you’ve seen both The Illusionist and The Prestige — two period movies about magic that were released a few months apart last year — you likely find one infinitely superior to the other. I’m a Prestige guy; The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger, seems simple and dumb compared to Christopher Nolan’s rich, rewarding effort.

Several smart people disagree. At Slate, Dana Stevens claims:

The Illusionist .., has considerable intellectual ambitions, though it tucks them discreetly up its sleeve. The film shows the competing strains of spiritualism and scientific rationalism that dominated late-19th-Century thought ... .”

And in the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum is more explicit about the writer/director’s aims:

“Burger ... at the outset ... introduces us to the mysterious young magician, whose tricks are so spectacular we’re unsure whether to see them as supernatural miracles or as simply very good magic tricks. We’re also presented with a speculative account of how the magician was first introduced to magic — a whimsical fantasy encounter with another magician that provides more details we must decide whether to believe or doubt. The romanticism of Burger’s depiction of 1900 Vienna (conjured up with an exquisite sense of suggestion and ellipsis) and the love story he’s telling serve the same function ... : We’re given an elaborate menu of choices, and ... we decide how much to believe ... .”

These are fair readings thematically, but The Illusionist undercuts them by being far too coy about magic. Yes, there’s a skeptical inspector (Paul Giamatti) whose presence and inquiries prompt the audience to ask whether Edward Norton’s character is merely an illusionist or actually has supernatural powers. (The movie’s title suggests the former.) And yes, the way the movie’s pivotal event is filmed will alert many people to what’s going on.

But unlike The Prestige, The Illusionist refuses to show the mechanics of any of its tricks, so the final reveal — which Rosenbaum charitably suggests is thrillingly ambiguous — was to me maddeningly wishy-washy. The Prestige invoked the supernatural (or at least the science-fictitious), but it let the audience know what was possible in the movie’s world; The Illusionist pushes the audience to believe in magic and then pulls the rug out.

Two tricks illustrate the point. The first involves an orange tree that grows miraculously on a tabletop. The second shows Norton conjuring the spirits of the dead before an audience. Burger tells the audience that both could be illusions — the inspector is given the instructions for the tree trick, and a movie projector hints at the secret of the other — but that appears impossible. The tree is clearly achieved cinematically through the use of computer-generated imagery, while the noise of a projector is conspicuously absent from the hushed performance auditorium. Burger wants it both ways: Subtle clues tell the audience that the effects cannot be achieved without the supernatural, but then — without ever telling viewers how they might be created mechanically — he expects us to march into the camp of skeptics.

Rosenbaum says that we must decide what to believe. But Burger doesn’t give us enough evidence to logically support either conclusion, so I’ll believe that The Illusionist is just a bad movie.

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