The Black Dahlia: "Just Another Lost Angel... City of Night"
By Fernando F. Croce

"The way to criticize a film is to make another film." Thus spake Godard, so The Black Dahlia materializes as criticism of Hollywoodland, making that film's limp inquiry look even more TV-sized. At the helm is Brian De Palma, who, to trot out another Jean-Luc quote, "starts with the image": the camera tracks toward Josh Harnett, who waits in the gym for his pugilistic match with Aaron Eckhart, then dissolves for a glimpse, via descending crane, of the characters' meeting. The Zoot Suit Riots, the first of the revisited collective traumas, supply the occasion, novelist James Ellroy supplies the swaggering male bonding -- Los Angeles cops in the late '40s, Bucky (Harnett) and Lee (Eckhart) are called "Fire and Ice" for their contrasting temperaments. The boxing bout gives a shoutout to Raging Bull while sealing their friendship, but the main fight throughout the picture remains between the image and the word, or rather between De Palma and Ellroy. Haunted film noir vultures, both, but while the writer had to squeeze an unwieldy line like "This is the City of Angels and you haven't got any wings" out of a character's mouth in L.A. Confidential, the filmmaker effortlessly projected all of the genre onto his heroine in Femme Fatale's first minute. It isn't a fair fight and De Palma wins by a country mile, using the author's risible tough-guy prose as the basis for his newest study in morality and vision, pulp made into art.

De Palma skims the plot for filmic expressiveness, visual marvel after visual marvel follows: What a pleasure to see the widescreen fully used these days when small minds spend more time on the DVD packaging. The '40s here are an oneiric incantation, essentially timeless, like the Wenders-Coppola distillation of Hammett or the 1970s of the director's own Carlito's Way. A swirling track catches Scarlet Johansson in full profile, she turns to the camera, all satin skin and ruby lipstick, for the close-up; her Kay Lake wedges herself between the two "supercops" as the trio watches the silent The Man Who Laughs, and trembles when Conrad Veidt's freakish smile is unveiled on the screen. Gothic distortions are not scarce in De Palma's Los Angeles, chief among them the horrid murder of the title, the stuff of Hollywood Babylon -- Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress, was found cut in half, drained of blood, and with her face lacerated into a horrific smile. The discovery of the body in the fields is just one element of the elaborate long-take, with the protagonists waiting in a stakeout doomed to curdle; a switch in angle locates the victim's POV as the LAPD huddles around the corpse. The autopsy shot is unexpectedly reminiscent of Polanski's workhouse introduction in Oliver Twist, with hulking character actors molded into indelible caricature; Short (Mia Kirshner) survives only in audition reels, ambition pierced with tears and torn nylons, haunting Bucky, obsessing Lee, turning on Madeleine (Hilary Swank), the rich-daddy's-girl doppelganger.

Black Angel is advertised in one theater marquee, The Blue Angel is evoked next door in the dyke dive where k.d. lang borrows Dietrich's top-hat act amid a dozen groping chorines, and where Swank's Stanwyckian homage is spotted by Bucky. A "rich bitch with a taste for low life," Madeleine invites the detective to meet her family, where the dysfunctional ghouls are hilariously surveyed in a subjective shot, with Fiona Shaw's Mama Linscott grabbing the contorted booby prize (her money-shot is staged later in front of theatrical crimson curtains, like the ones parted by Argento to open Deep Red). Horror edges into farce, but De Palma always yields a despairing dagger beneath his impish fašade, and in moments like Bucky's recognition of his inescapable implication in the suffering of others, Vilmos Zsigmond's magisterial cinematography reminds us of the aching, politicized moral indignation found in Blow Out. "Who are these men who feed on others," the hero wonders while seeing the marks carved into Kay's flesh, and even if the mysteries can be solved, the pain lingers, festers: De Palma refuses to forget the dark sides of art and history, the painting of a grotesquely grinning clown is his central link to the past (Victor Hugo, Hitchcock's Blackmail), present ("I don't get modern art"), and future (Frank Miller's the Joker, the ongoing horrors of both the old and the new millennium). Reviewers nurse their own nostalgia by telling themselves L.A. Confidential was the better film, but it's business as usual for De Palma, who gazes back as a way to open our eyes to the abyss beneath our feet.

*

Mia Kirshner's presence in The Black Dahlia looms as hauntingly as Thuy Thu Le's in Casualties of War as a profound example of De Palma's modernist reconfiguration of classic heroic tropes, with the hero tragically failing to save the girl. By contrast, the men in The Last Kiss would not notice a woman drowning next to them, for that might interrupt the egotistical navel-gazing that tries here to pass for sensitive contemplation. The big culprit is Zach Braff, whose character, a 29-year-old architect who begins feeling the weight of responsibility as marriage and parenthood draw nearer, is virtually his Garden State na´f with even less use for the poor mortals surrounding him. Jacinda Barrett is his pregnant girlfriend, Rachel Bilson is the bouncy coed tempting him, Casey Affleck heads the rest of the twentysomething imbeciles, Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson represent menopausal crisis -- and, because the script is by Paul Haggis, everybody gets to Crash into the hysteria. A very drab piece of work, particularly after a De Palma, although the lack of fireworks in Tony Goldwyn's direction proves at least an improvement over Gabriele Muccino's selfish tracking-and-chopping in the 2001 Italian original. Yes, it's a remake, as if American films needed help celebrating arrested narcissism.

*

Time for the obligatory monthly animated-feature pan. Up to bat is Everyone's Hero, originally envisioned by Christopher Reeve, then completed by Colin Brady and Daniel St. Pierre; the plot, following a 10-year-old baseball fan named "Yankee" scrambling to return Babe Ruth's stolen bat, is set in the Depression, though the complete lack of attention to period detail (the kind The Iron Giant had in abundance) remains its strangest aspect. Its most refreshing aspect, on the other hand, remains the complete lack of wiseass pop winking, even if the Babe is still drawn as bulbously as Shrek; the pipsqueak hero's sidekicks are a loudmouth baseball (voiced by Rob Reiner) and a sassy bat (Whoopi Goldberg), the notion of eyes and lips imprinted on inanimate objects outdoing even Cars in dwindling imagination. The intentions may be boringly good, but at least they're not assaultive. By all means, see The Black Dahlia and leave the tykes at Everyone's Hero, they're sure to love the J. Edgar Hoover references.


Reviewed September 21, 2006.

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