Re: RARA-AVIS: THE BLACK DAHLIA, more heresy--Surreal

From: Vince Keenan (
Date: 17 Sep 2006

My apologies to Jack Bludis. But sitting through The Black Dahlia was one of the most dispiriting experiences I've had in a movie theater in ages.

Every Brian DePalma movie yields its share of treasures, and this one is no exception. There are several terrific set pieces. The discovery of the Dahlia's corpse was particularly well done. Talk about surreal. Fiona Shaw plays unhinged in high style. And it's nice to see veteran character actor Mike Starr land a plum role as Detective Russ Millard.

But the film completely lacks the sense of obsession that gives Ellroy's novel its power. The ghost of Elizabeth Short is never far away in the book, whereas the movie seems to stop itself cold every twelve minutes for a scene in which someone says, "And remember that dead woman!" All this frenzied motion with nothing at the core driving it.

Consider Short's audition reel, in which DePalma himself provides the voice of the director. We see Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) screening this footage several times during the course of the film. But DePalma doesn't include the material in a way that indicates Bleichert is watching the footage over and over again; the composition and wardrobe in the Bleichert reaction shots seems to be identical, so it looks as if we're seeing a single screening broken down into chunks and scattered throughout the film. The scenes are used as punctuation to break up the action.

Aside from forgetting Betty Short, the script never weaves the disparate plot threads together into a satisfying whole. At times it's like three separate movies playing at once, all of them finally coming together because, well, we've all got homes to go to.

It makes for a stark contrast with the adaptation of L.A. Confidential, which in many respects is a far more complicated novel. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson unpacked every element of that book and then recombined them in a manner that was fleet and cinematic without sacrificing texture. Here, Josh Friedman is faithful to a fault. I was surprised that the material about Bleichert's father was in the movie. It's fascinating stuff on the page, deadly onscreen. In L.A. Confidential, the novel, Ed Exley's father Preston is alive, well, and a key player. In the movie, he's long dead, and that allows for the invention of Rollo Tomasi, one of the finest bits of screenwriting I've seen.

A. O. Scott has a piece on the critical response to DePalma's career in today's New York Times. You can find it here:

In it, he lists several elements common to DePalma films, including mysterious doubles, films-within-films, femme fatales, voyeurism, and complex acts of violence set in elevators or stairwells. All present and accounted for in The Black Dahlia. What's interesting is how many of them are already there in Ellroy's book. Maybe that's part of the problem. Maybe Ellroy and DePalma are too simpatico, so alike that their collaboration feels second-hand.

For me, Hollywoodland is easily the better film. It doesn't have any of DePalma's visual panache, but then again it doesn't need to. It has a story to tell.

Vince Keenan Pop culture, high and low, past and present. One day at a time.

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 17 Sep 2006 EDT