VISUAL LABYRINTHS IN BODY DOUBLE

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An Exploraiton of Visual Symbolism
 
– Mar. 16, 2016

It is the epitome of obviousness to say Body Double is Brian de Palma's full out homage to Alfred Hitchcock (a relationship resumed, though less emphatically, in his 1992 Raising Cain). The film follows heavily in theme and visualization both Rear Window, in the voyeurism, and Vertigo, which is transformed into claustrophobia. Though is it solely homage? To me de Palma is delving far too deeply into the stylistic aspects of Hitchcock for it to be merely homage: it is all out exploration and play; stealing, in the manner of the phrase, to the ends of his own creation, but stealing in plain sight, and playfully calling attention to the theft to boot.

What I would like to look at here, however, is a third theme that lies (mostly) outside the Hitchcock connection and speaks to how Body Double is an very successful film of its own identity and unity: the theme of the labyrinth. It is a theme in Body Double presented almost entirely visually, which is what makes it so fascinating to me, and, I would argue, what makes it so successful. Granted, the visuals work in the film also at the simpler, technical levels of creating mood, pace, tension, etc. However, the work also, and to greater effect, on their own within a complex of ideational play. In what follows, keep that relationship in mind. My interest here is not in how the visual aspect of the labyrinthian work subserviently to some base structure; rather, my interest is how the visuals on their own, without the support of exposition or dialogue in any way, generate their own ideational depth to the film. I will here mostly only present the visual elements and offer a reading of some of the ideational energies created. I will not go too deeply into any theoretical discussion; and will leave exploration beyond presentation mostly to you.

 

Before continuing, let me posit a fourth idea, one mostly structural in nature, which I bring in primarily in an organizational function. I want to recognize that Body Double follows the classic, Shakespearean, there-and-back-again, five step structure. This is in itself not that terribly important an idea as regards the design of the film: the five step organization is something readily found in narratives, and something really created by accident; its presence within a text does not mean that the text was intentionally built upon that framework, as here, where there is no insistence within the film itself that we as the audience should see five steps.

The structure runs as follows:

1. Initial scene within the city: The world is stable and generally happy. But, there is some flaw within that stability that calls to question that happiness. In Body Double this is seen the extended opening sequence, especially through the near absurd happiness of the main character, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) as he journeys from work to home. All is good in the life of Jake, even despite his acting career being little more than B-movie roles or second rate stage productions. All is good, that is, except for that pesky claustrophobia.

2. The journey out of the city into the woods: Disruption comes to the city, and casting the characters out of the city into the dark woods. The combination of his walking in on his girlfriend Carol (Barbara Crampton) and getting fired from the film throws Jake into chaos, literally "casting out" in that because of his break up he is functionally homeless. It is through this that Jake finds himself in the "unreal" world of the tower, voyeurism, and situation of the murder.

3. The dark night in the woods: The world falls into chaos, permitting a re-arranging of structures and relationships. This stage covers the majority of the film, as would be expected. I do not put the turning point, the hinge, at the murder of Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), however. The turning point, the deepest point within the mythic chaos that permits the reordering of the world, occurs rather in the filming of the porn scene.

4. The journey back into the city: The characters emerge from chaos into a new world-structure. This is Jake's resolution of and escape from the murder plot.

5. The new situation within the city: A new world structure is established and all is good again, only with that initial flaw now resolved. In the film, the opening sequence is replayed, if with a different 'box,' as the coffin is replaced with a shower stall. The world has found a new order. Jake is happy again, working again (in the role he previously lost), and is in a new, more solid relationship.

Again, I am not saying that this is the structure upon which De Palma built Body Double, though it is a structure that can be legitimately traced across the film. It serves me here in that it offers a framework upon which to talk about the visual labyrinths in the film.

 

Visual labyrinths. Never in the film do any of the characters (or does the film itself) overtly point to or speak of labyrinths. They are wholly a visual element, created either through the setting or through camerawork (especially through the camera in motion). It is for that that I find these elements of the film so interesting, in how they generate structure and ideation within the film without explicit identification or overt exposition. That is, they are used by De Palma in a sophisticated way to sophisticated readings, very unlike the blunt presentations one generally finds in Hollywood cinema.

There are three such labyrinths, five if you permit the idea of "labyrinth" to be defined solely by the central room. The three primary labyrinths each function within the second, third, and fourth stage of the above structure. The other two are found in the opening and closing sequences: the "rooms" of the casket and the shower stall. It might be argued that the first room is found within the labyrinth of the studio lot what with all the small visual games De Palma is playing with the viewer during Jake's exit from the lot as regards what is real and what is not within the walls of a studio lot. If this is to be seen as a labyrinth, though, it is not terribly labyrinthian as Jake navigates it with ease. As well, it breaks from the idea of labyrinth per se in that Jake would be exiting it, when the idea of a labyrinth functions really upon the idea of the quest to reach the center. Developmentally, though, the opening drive out of the lot does establish the coming visual thematics.

 

The first true labyrinth – and I will say "labyrinth" even though it may be better to say the "journey through a labyrinth," as any labyrinth is undefined (and, even, non-existent) outside of the journey through it – is the sequence of Jake following his object of obsession, Gloria Revelle. Perhaps I have watched too closely the climactic sequence of Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986) too many times, but the shots in Body Double seem to me likewise intended – if not so overtly – to appeal to the drawings of M.C. Escher.

 

The visual labyrinth begins in earnest just earlier, when they first enter the mall, with the choreographed shot circling the phone kiosks.

The choreography works both to the generation of the idea of labyrinth and also to that of the Beast – the Indian – who lives in and had dominion over the labyrinth.

Even when Jake is led beyond the shopping area by Gloria, he has not yet reached the center of the labyrinth, as seen in that even the stairs to the beach are incapable of a straight line

and beyond in the interweaving in the changing tents.

The center of this first labyrinth is, of course, the tunnel.

There Jake first confronts the "Beast," the Indian, who is really Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), the creator of the grand 'labyrinth' of deception and manipulation that surrounds Gloria's upcoming murder, machinations whose purpose, in echo of the general setting of Hollywood and film making, is to generate and control a narrative (something that exists only in its telling) of that murder.

In this first labyrinth Jake also has his first encounter with an Ariadne. Although, Gloria is a false Ariadne. After all, the physical attraction generated in the pre-arranged voyeurism, an attraction which is also a psychological attraction in that that primary engagement was, firstly, entirely visual because distanced and, secondly, not a mere attraction to a body but an attraction to a body in action, to a performance, to a person in their being – albeit the believability of that 'being' is for now unknown – is not with Gloria but with Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), the body double brought by Sam in to entice Jake into the grand narrative of upcoming the murder.

The visual labyrinths in the film work at their most simple level as atmospheric echo of the grand machinations of Sam's plotting: an often enough seen device, especially within noir, a filming style intimately connected to Hitchcock's stylistic workings. (Not that Body Double is noir. It is not, even if it overlaps somewhat in its devices. Its thematics and directions are on a wholly different path.) However, as stated, the labyrinths also work to generate their own ideational field of play, particularly as regards the two Ariadnes of the labyrinths, Gloria and Holly.

It is in such that the opening and closing "rooms" of the film can also be seen as the centers of labyrinths; only, labyrinths that don't actually exist: they are the initial and re-established stases, the "cities" at the beginning and ending of the loose, five-part structure. Though, in the beginning, Jake is seen passing through the visual illusions of the studio lot, there is no truly labyrinthian aspect: again, a thematic labyrinth is defined not by the geography but by the persons in journey. There is no such 'journey' occurring in the opening sequences of the film: there is merely the mechanical getting Jake from point A to point B. Despite his situation as a not-terribly-successful, B-movie actor, Jake is happy with life: everything is good; the world is in stasis. Except there is this suddenly appearing (if we are to believe Jake) claustrophobia that will cost Jake his role in the vampire flick, and the presently occurring and soon discovered sleeping around by his girlfriend Carol. It is the discovery of the latter which materially casts Jake out of the stasis of the city and into the dark forest – which is always at some level a labyrinth.

It is worth noting that Carol appears also at the end of the film. It is she who is the woman with Jake in the shower stall, and the woman to whom Holly says, "You're gonna get a lot of dates when this comes out." The beginning is the ending, only rearranged and changed. Jake is back playing the vampire, a role "he was made for" says the director (Denis Franz); he is happy; he is a relationship. Even, his paramour at the beginning is still present and welcome in his city. What has changed? Jake is now in a relationship with Holly, a relationship we can assume is of a better nature than that previously. As well, Jake has lost his claustrophobia: we need only compare this scene with that in the cramped quarters of the elevator in the initial labyrinth

 

(To note, the elevator is not a center of a labyrinth: they are in motion.)

That earlier shot in the elevator works to establish the relationship between Jake and Gloria: she is a false Ariadne. Though they both may be within a labyrinth they are not traveling it together. Indeed, Gloria is wholly unwitting of the web of intricacies in which she is already caught.

At the center of the first labyrinth comes Jake's opportunity of intimacy with Gloria: though I will hold off on that for the moment. There, she rescues him from – or, better to say, guides him out of – the tunnel, where he has been held by his own claustrophobia. The beasts – the Beast that is Sam Bouchard and the psychological beast that manifests in the claustrophobia – both rule the labyrinth. It is theirs in both possession and making, and Jake can only lose in confrontation with them.

 

The second labyrinth occurs during the sequence of the filming of the porn movie. For the most part Jake is less working his way through the labyrinth than being led about, either passively by the eye candy that surrounds him or actively by the promptings of the other creatures that populate the place (including the members of the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, whose song is the soundtrack to the moment).

 

 

 

That is, until he approaches the center of the labyrinth

where he finds the true Ariadne, Holly Body.

The differences between the first and second labyrinths all work to the ideation. Here the labyrinth occurs on a movie set: this is, ostensibly, Jake's world, a world he is supposed to be able to navigate as easily as the lot at the beginning of the film. Yes, Jake here is not actually Jake in the real world but a character being played by Jake, and the labyrinth is being generated not only by the outer narrative of De Palma's directing but also by the inner narrative of the directing of the porn film; but, the distinction between role and reality is one that has been blurred from the first moments of Body Double: the two concepts are brought into that simultaneously same and different opposition that is the source of all symbolic ideation. The film begins with Jake in his role of the vampire, a 'role' that is thwarted by the 'reality' of claustrophobia. Only, Jake is an actor; as such, playing roles – mastering roles, unifying the role and the self – is his 'reality.' In the blunt factuality of the narrative, it is the porn-character-Jake that is navigating a labyrinth; but in the symbolic ideation of the film Body Double it is also Jake himself, simultaneous identified as and distinct from that character. And it is not for naught that, at the center of the labyrinth, character-Jake/Jake takes control of the passage through the labyrinth and enters the center of his own volition, where he meets the true Ariadne, and the character-Jake – remembering that Jake is also a character in the narrative being created by Sam – and Jake the person unify within the material. First there are two people in a mirror.

Then there is but one.

We have turned back – regressed – to the earlier situations first of Jake watching Holly dancing through the telescope and then of Jake seeing Holly dancing in the commercial. Then, Holly invites

and the wall between illusion and reality is breached

and Jake finds at the center of the labyrinth the real Ariadne.

Though the second labyrinth is populated with, to wit, strange creatures, the Beast has no dominion here: neither the Beast that is Sam nor the beast that is the claustrophobia, the former never present, the latter being momentarily conquered because of the presence – the very real presence – of Ariadne, Holly, the material being of Jake's desires. Again, the difference between the first and second labyrinths is defined by what is found in the center, the false Ariadne of Gloria vs. the true Ariadne of Holly. The punning in the names – the ethereal Gloria Revelle versus the material Holly Body – come to fruition. Within this ideation, the screw up of the missing money shot is not merely a joke by DePalma nor a technical means to close off the sequence. It is significant of our Theseus and our Ariadne finding each other. I find that small moment of endearing laughter of Holly at the end of the sequence to be one of the more important – and more elegantly operated – moments in the film

The "characters" of Jake and Holly, two roles in the narrative that has been crafted by Sam, have in that moment emerged out of illusion and into reality; have broken the wall not only of the porn set (seen in that delicately worked moment of intimacy) but also through the wall of the murder narrative. Of course the moment of intimacy with Gloria after the first labyrinth, a moment filmed in the manner of Hollywood glamour

cannot come to resolution. Jake believes himself to be attracted to Gloria, but it is only illusion, part of the narrative in which he is caught. The moment of intimacy can not be real. That attraction, the pulling connection, exists in its being not with Gloria but with Holly. Thus, we see Jake flash back, in his encounter with Holly to the earlier encounter with Gloria, bringing that illusionary encounter into reality and to a conclusion – which is not a conclusion but an opening of a door. In finding Holly and finding union with her and through her Jake has not only seen through but broken through the aporia of Sam's narrative, a breaking through that requires the physicality of material reality. With that physicality, the narrative, the labyrinth created by Sam and the Beast that is Sam, has been overturned; the roles that existed at the beginning of the journey into the dark woods have been rearranged. There is left only safe journey out of the dark forest – which is in no way easy, for it is through the journey out that the new city will be established.

 

The third labyrinth is that journey out, and occurs during the climactic sequence in the reservoir. Where with the second labyrinth the idea was generated primarily through Jake's movement through the porn setting, the third labyrinth, like the first, is primarily visual, created out of the channels of water in the reservoir, images again reminiscent of Escher and, within the context of the film, of the first labyrinth. Because of those earlier references, they need not here be as visually defining. (I've lightened some of these darker images; but they are still a touch ineffective.)

 

 

In this labyrinth the Beast again has dominion. The narrative has been overturned, but the Beast itself must still be defeated for Jake to escape the dark forest and find his way back into – which is to say and newly establish – the safety of the city. Only it is two Beasts that must be conquered – both Sam and the claustrophobia – and in a sense two dark forests that must be exited – that of the arc of the murder and that of the background situation of the underlying, psychological causes of Jake's claustrophobia.

To note, those underlying causes are another narrative element that need not – and indeed should not – be pursued within the film itself outside of what is presented, as the film is not about those underlying causes. The presence of those causes – whatever they really are – exist to give psychological grounding and ideational depth to the primary narrative. Such depth cannot be and should not be reduced to expositional fact, lest their resonance be eliminated. It is enough that a background moment is provided in the scene in the acting class. Can that moment be believed? Can that moment be sufficient to the cause of Jake's claustophobia? Not really, with either question. But we need not know the cause for the film to work: we need only see the functioning – not the passive origin but the active functioning – of the ideational complex within the character of Jake. The use of an origin, whether believable or not, whether it needs to be believed or not, is but a means to give that complex of energies grounding within the film.

In the third labyrinth the Indian (the Beast) successfully draws Jake – and Holly – into the center room of the not-at-all-shallow grave.

And once again we have a panicking Jake in a closed room, next to an unwitting (ok, unconscious) Ariadne.

 

Only this time it is Holly, not Gloria: grounded materiality is not a part of Jake's being. As well it is an inherent aspect of the dilemma: Jake must either defeat his Beasts or both he and Holly will die. Though, as throughout the film, materiality is insufficient, and not the ultimate goal. There must be the union of the material with the psychological, of reality with illusion, of being with the roles being played. Thus De Palma again flashes Jake back, as with Jakes first encounter with Holly, this time to the vampire's coffin. By way of that self-aware flash back (the combining of the pscyhological and the cinematic in those adjectives intended), Jake is given opportunity and gives himself opportunity to confront the psychological Beast through the opportunity to re-enter the coffin – enter the center room, as with the second labyrinth – on his own volition, as must be necessary to the defeat of any Beast and to the emergence from the dark forest. Having overcome his own psyche, it is now but falling dominoes that he overcome the material Beast. Indeed, once he has overcome his own psyche, the labyrinth is now his, and the world and its creatures turns upon the Beast that would be its king.

Unfortunately for Jake, his relationship with Holly has been confused by his own machinations – that is, the fiction of his being a producer – and he must help Ariadne get out of that quasi-labyrinth of his own making before full resolution can be found. (It is not a true labyrinth, in that Holly has no overcoming necessary to her being. The earlier scene with her talking to another actress speaks of Holly's self-knowledge and of her control over her own world. It is mere a web of deception that must be cleared away.) That part of the story, though, is unnecessary in its telling to the film Body Double, and is correctly left out except for it resolution, shown in the final sequence, in that final 'room,' with Holly speaking to Carol:

curiously, speaking to Carol of yet another breaching of film and reality, of the dates she would get as a result of the body double that takes her place in the shower stall.

 

Presented this way, it may make the five part structure seem very intended. It is difficult to say whether the film was indeed so organized, as it is very easy for a narrative – especially a mythic narrative like that of Body Double – to fall into such a structure without effort or intention: which speaks both to the simplicity and the effectiveness of that five stage structure. But as said up front, what interests me most with Body Double is less the structure that was created with the labyrinth ideation than the means of its creation: wholly within the visual, never (except for statements about Jake's claustrophobia) overtly, within the dialog. Seeing the labyrinths, their production through the medium of film, speaks to the potentials of ideation, and the depth of ideation that can be created through play as opposed to overt exposition. Facts generate little energy; that is why realism is the lowest form of any art, and why realism is generally the lest complex and least resonant ideationally. However, implication, indirection, generating ideation through multiple levels of narration, interpretation, or presentation, can only but generate all kinds of ideational depth and play. And in the hands of someone adept in their medium, you can end up with fascinating works such as Body Double.