City of Sin

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:11

    The Black Dahlia

    Directed by Brian DePalma

    L.A. Confidential and Hollywood-land—films that pretend to investigate our national fascination with movies—look like child’s play compared to Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia. Instead of exploiting everyone’s envy of that California industry and confusing such pandering with a reflection of society, DePalma does something more complicated. With his gift for entering the culture’s collective unconscious, DePalma decided to root his Hollywood myth in the murder of an aspiring actress, resulting in a profound and deliberately unsettling film. In 1947, Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body was found in a vacant lot—a crime that became legendary for both its grisliness and lack of resolution. And yet, The Black Dahlia is not inspired by nostalgia; the past reveals the same dreadful sensationalism we endure today. 

    DePalma turns the legend of The Black Dahlia into a portrait of the Hollywood institution as both nightmare and fantasia—not dishonest sociology, but a haunting realization of all that Hollywood represents. “Hollywood will fuck you when no one else will,” says a hard-boiled police captain. His cynicism is in response to Elizabeth Short’s murder, but he could also be describing the misfortunes of his two young detectives assigned to the case, Bucky (Josh Hartnett) and Lee (Aaron Eckhart). Each officer seeks compromise with the corrupt world, signified by their participation in L.A.P.D. boxing match where they are billed as “Fire and Ice.” Commodified just like movie stars, their hot and cold temperaments reflect contrasting ways of dealing with social and inner pressure—the range of moral disgust.

    That’s what immediately separates The Black Dahlia from L.A. Confidential and Hollywoodland. DePalma isn’t peddling Curtis Hanson’s decadence nor Hollywoodland’s superio view of the past. This film plunges into difficult politics with its first flashback sequence of a 1940s zoot suit melee where L.A. Latinos are attacked by white servicemen. That’s how Bucky and Lee initially meet: under the bizarre conditions of cops intervening in a race riot, forced to battle men in the military. It’s DePalma’s vision of social chaos—citizens divided against themselves—that never ends.

    Knowing that the film industry coexists with this public corrosion, DePalma is torn between illustrating the rotted movieland dream and the debilitating Hollywood reality. It’s the same tension that unites Bucky and Lee; their friendship includes mutual admiration for a young woman named Kay (Scarlett Johansson)—The trio has a make-shift arrangement that brings them family camaraderie in a deluxe white-walled bungalow. Their fragile, naive union—the opposite of the warped family of wealthy suspect Madeleine (Hilary Swank)—is eventually pulled apart. 

    This vision of social and domestic misery is the least understood aspect of DePalma’s art. Renowned as the impudent master of suspense, DePalma is, first of all, a genre satirist with a phenomenal grasp of film technique. (Johansson is uncannily photographed like Tippi Hedren in The Birds.) He sees life through movie tropes; his films are made vivid with film references. But at the same time, DePalma lends his characters’ social gravity. Bucky, Lee and Kay’s tragic inability to establish the family life they desire is a commentary on the dishonesty of Hollywood fiction that infects the American habit. It parallels the sad, horrible fate of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short. These tales need to come together with the depth, power and psychological insight that David Lynch achieved in Mulholland Drive.  

    Unfortunately, DePalma’s unique vision is compromised by the superficial sociology of author James Ellroy’s source material. Multiple stories of individual heartbreak, brutalization and failure pile up like so many clichés from countless faux-Hollywood narratives. DePalma’s instinct is to go Gothic (brilliantly alluding to German Expressionist films like Paul Leni’s 1928 The Man Who Laughed) and Modernism (poignant audition clips from Short’s aborted film career). Scene by scene, this is complex, beautifully-executed stuff, yet it never coalesces with the operatic pull of DePalma’s great films. The Black Dahlia feels like a two-hour trailer featuring chopped-up highlights of DePalma’s entire oeurve. 

    But to see The Black Dahlia as a botched version of Hollywoodiana like Sunset Boulevard or Chinatown would be a dull-witted mistake. DePalma never makes a narrative that is merely straightforward. Short’s audition scenes surprisingly include exegesis of Gone With the Wind that penetrates to the desperate, tragic heart of American ambition. These scenes attain profound insight similar to Robert Towne’s ultimate Hollywood movie Ask the Dust. Admittedly, much of The Black Dahlia’s disappointment owes to the triumph of DePalma’s previous film, Femme Fatale (2002); it was the most exhilaratingly avant-garde mainstream movie of the new century (rivaled only by Mulholland Drive). How could DePalma, a genre satirist, political moralist and driven entertainer,  continuously live up to such extraordinary achievement without falling short once?