(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)
THE UPSIDE OF CAMP
The tropes of Black Dahlia are those of noir, a genre native to american film and Los Angeles, with such standards as vertical blinds, smoking, a femme fatale, the rich sisters of The Big Sleep, a love triangle, no doubt others. These are all ritual elements, as recognizable as aspects of a christian painting, and they are supposed to be given proper veneration, homage to mystic relics. De Palma does something different, not openly desecrating for cheap laughs, but bending them through camp elements. The noir elements do not make a film great any more than a 19th century sitting room makes for a serious film, anymore than anything that features a harpsichord is “serious” music. The movie Dahlia takes in noir elements and upends each of them.
Consider the possibility that the hypotheses of the previous posts are true. Then this film is about an alpha male, Lee Blanchard, who is actually gay; Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a bisexual man attracted to both Blanchard and his appearances only girlfriend, Kay Lake; she is a woman of moral purity who tries to make sure that her male rival for Bleichert’s affections is killed, so they can both live happily after together on his stolen money. The story also features the classic trope of a femme fatale, Madeleine Linscott, as well as another classic trope (around since Laura), the girl who is a double for a dead woman. In this movie, however, Madeleine looks nothing like her double, but she does seem like a double for Bleichert, and shares his bisexuality. The dead woman, the Dahlia of the title, is an afterthought to the whole story, which is eventually solved through a baroque solution, and given a baroque presentation. This dead woman, a brutalized victim, is supposed to be the centerpiece of the plot, but she’s overshadowed by Kay and Madeleine, who seem to be smarter than almost all of the men of the story, and are very good at manipulating them. Madeleine sees very clearly the corruption of Kay and Blanchard, as well as the sexual identity of Bleichert. The detective, threatened by all this, kills her. So, the expected noir story, though outwardly little different and carrying all the identifying details, is turned entirely on its head.
Probably the best, most obvious place to start this discussion is near the ending, when Ramona Linscott confesses to the murder. From here on I rely, and perhaps overrely, on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” for reference. Sontag throws a very wide net over what she considers camp, including Caravaggio and The Maltese Falcon, but her essay is very useful for the expected thoughtfulness, but also for being so well-known that it serves as an easy touchstone on what is broadly considered camp, even if we disagree with some of its inclusions and exclusions. The essay warns against intentional attempts at camp, and here, I think De Palma is very effective, because the camp effects of the film prompted reviewers to ask the wanted question: “was that done on purpose?”
The Ramona Linscott scene is helped with this “Camp” quote on high art, which I think is important here as a counterpoint for what the movie tries to avoid:
35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds – in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward relation between intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s quartets, and – among people – Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.
The Linscott confession scene starts out like most such scenes in a conventional noir: the detective has the suspects at the point of a gun, and he threatens them to confess. In the book, Bleichert starts destroying works of art by shooting some of them as a way of getting answers. The novel, as it treats many things, treats this very seriously. In the film, it is given such a ridiculous, heightened quality that it’s laughable. Various high art objects are destroyed, valued not for their qualities themselves, but their “seriousness”, and most important for a family whose fortune was built on firetraps, for their “respectability”. So, Bleichert shoots these various pieces, the movie defiantly avoiding formal seriousness. A chandelier falls to the ground, the high art is destroyed, and the camp really starts.
The novel’s confession contains many of the same elements as Ramona’s, but even more elaborate and morbid. It is all given in a sober tone, an inquiry into the darkness of the soul, very much serious art. I enjoyed most of the book, but found the final revelation to be so complex and gory I kept trying to reshuffle things in my head to make it more effective. De Palma seems to have found it unworkably baroque, and given it an appropriate delivery. Rather than a serious monologue, it’s delivered from the top of the stairs like an aria without music. Various pieces of high culture lie smashed about the players, and only camp remains. I have no doubt that some review made reference to Goebbels’ line about “when I hear the word culture”, and, hopefully, gave credit to someone other than Goebbels, since the intent here is not against high culture, only an opposition to the idea that certain forms or tropes are inherently great or serious. The destruction of the serious art and the lurid monologue are about this movie’s sensibility, but also a manifesto for De Palma’s career, a non-deference for respectable stories, the nineteenth century romance, someone or other dying of cancer etc., in favor of work in “trashy” popular genres.
Moving on, this “Notes on Camp” point, I think, is very relevant to this film:
15. […] To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.
But most importantly, this:
The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. . . . Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn’t: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms. For obvious reasons, the best examples that can be cited are movie stars. The corny flamboyant female-ness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated he-man-ness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige Feuillière.
This idea, I think, dominates the film, and we are given a quick image which embodies the way the film’s camp undermines the seriousness of the noir form in a crucial scene.
There is the bust of a man which, frankly I can’t identify (my only guess is Thomas Jefferson), but no doubt a possible member of the group of serious individuals (Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola, etc.) mentioned in the previous “Camp” note, in the sequence at the Olympic:
Then, from behind this piece of serious art, appears the androgyne, “one of the great images of Camp sensibility”, Madeleine in her man’s suit.
Two other moments where the picture clearly tips its hand. Bleichert walks into a room after showing off his behind to the camera, and looks at the audience, as if aware he’s in a movie and they’re looking at him.
He goes about the business of exposition in the scene, necessary for the later confession, before arriving at a picture that catches his attention. It’s a picture of The Man Who Laughs, laughing at whoever looks at it.
In this case, it is, literally, laughing at these characters and the noir ritual of exposition. “I don’t get modern art,” says Bleichert. “I doubt modern art gets you either,” replies Madeleine.
The last, and my favorite, wink would be the scene at the dinner table. In the book, Martha, Madeleine’s sister, is an unattractive, malicious girl who is silent during dinner while she sketches Bleichert. Martha of the movie is a bright, vital, attractive woman (the excellent Rachel Miner) who carries on a normal conversation, one might call it a small investigation, with Bleichert.
On the surface, it is entirely an ordinary conversation. At the same time, Bleichert and Madeleine are being rendered into parody figures.
The characters of the movie are not parodies, and if they were, camp wouldn’t be possible. Yet they all have an exaggerated note to them, that may not entirely be noticed, since noir is full of these exaggerated notes.
THE DOWNSIDE OF CAMP
By treating his characters as surfaces, individuals who correspond outwardly to noir types but are very different underneath, De Palma makes a fascinating movie, but by doing so, something compelling is lost from the book.
I struggled to put what this is into words, but this fragment from “The Dragon’s Egg”, by Adam Gopnik, which discusses the compelling qualities of young adult fiction, is a good starting point:
Books win their audiences for a reason. Most popular books wear their artlessness on their sleeve: Stephenie Meyer, the author of the “Twilight” series, is an awkward writer with little feeling for construction, but the intensity of emotion with which she imbues her characters is enviable. You never doubt her commitment to the material, which is half the battle won.
Ellroy is a better writer than Meyer, though not, despite his claims, as good as Tolstoy. Whatever the weaknesses of his books, his commitment to the Dahlia is complete and unfeigned, his belief in the writing of books as a penitence through which damned individuals expose the authors own damnations, and redeem themselves through heroic acts the author himself wishes for, is complete, a quality of extraordinary importance in a writer, one unlearned and unlearnable. The obsessions of Bleichert and Madeleine are either Ellroy’s own, or felt to be Ellroy’s own, and like Meyer this gives Dahlia an intensity of emotion that is enviable. De Palma has had no difficulty with commitment to characters of similar obsessions, whether in Blow Out or Casualties of War, but in this case, he does not connect with these men and women. It may be because that there is something inherent in the material that does not allow him this commitment, that in his movies he always skeptically questioned his own obsessions, while in Ellroy’s Dahlia one is given nothing but the man’s obsession, unquestioned. Such examination of the motives of those who make movies and books is always an unreliable business, I like to avoid it, and I end it here.
What is best examined are the effects of books and movies, what they attempt to achieve, and how they do so. On those terms, I think the approach of both is very different. De Palma’s Dahlia is ostensibly about a man possessed by a woman, with every element subverting this very story, with the movie ultimately about the false aspects of these heroic fantasies, the roles it forces women to play, the roles men dearly want to play in these fantasies, and makes camp of both. Ellroy is so deep inside his obsessions in Dahlia that he has no possibility of skepticism, and his belief in this world allows for our belief as well, locating our obsessions, however different, in Bleichert and Madeleine. The distance of camp does not allow this, and this is what causes some to despise the camp and ironic approaches. In some contexts, camp and irony are seen as a diminishment of possibility, the empathy any reader or viewer has with some characters. It is possible to cherish the characters of Jane Austen; I’m unsure if it’s possible to cherish the characters of John Barth. De Palma’s Dahlia has such sympathy for one character only, looked at entirely without any bend or slant, and that’s Elizabeth Short, a troubled young woman of luminescent beauty who conveniently dies, allowing her image to persist for the machineries of obsession, fantasies of the characters and our own. Again, the quote from Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”
Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.