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On-Screen / Off

A note on 'the image' as still-living testament in De Palma's The Black Dahlia (2006)

De Palma's voice, off-screen, interrogates the actress.  She stares, doe-eyed into the camera, desperate, eager.  She wants to impress the director; to make a good impression.  It's a candid moment, both captivating and uncomfortable.  It addresses the inherent voyeurism of the viewing audience; questions our potential to find entertainment and intrigue in the sadness of the screen or to disassociate ourselves from the reality of this woman, recorded, on-camera, as an actress (a living being, with thoughts and feelings, captured on film) to see instead an object, an icon, a characterisation.  The scene blurs the identifiable line between fiction and reality.  It suggests 'an actuality' - a behind the scenes interaction between the real-life director and his star, made public, as if by accident - but it also provides a necessary function in the development of this devastating tale.

The mirroring between the 'real' and the 'recorded' has been an important theme throughout De Palma's career - with the similarly intrusive and explicitly voyeuristic "Private Moment" of his earlier film Greetings (1968) setting something of a loose, thematic template - but it is perhaps this sequence, more than any other, where the deconstruction of the role between the audience and the work and the power of the moving image, as a physical 'recording', finds its most poignant (and painful) expression.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Elizabeth Short, still living, post-mortem, as a recording; the ghost in the machine.

In the context of the scene itself, the actress is Mia Kirshner playing the title character; the tragic Elizabeth Short.  De Palma is playing the unseen director, guiding Short through the motions of a studio screen-test.  The footage is necessary, in the sense that it provides an on-screen reminder of Short - the film's enigmatic "Black Dahlia" - as a living being - our only evidence of her past existence beyond the mutilated cadaver found splayed in a Hollywood lot - but it also suggests a great deal about the life of this character, unknowable, as a result of death.  The knowledge of her subsequent murder (cruel and heartbreaking) gives weight to these on-camera confessionals; where the words spoken, in the context of the audition, express the sadness of a private-life.

There is a finality to this (staged) drama - enacted for the benefit of a belligerent director as surrogate for an unseen audience - as if Short herself was somehow aware of the sad fate that soon awaited her.  As such, the footage becomes a last will and testament; a moment in time, captured, forever.

These images, which beguile and transfix the audience, become an obsession for the central character, homicide detective Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert, who examines this black & white audition footage, and, in the process, becomes progressively more moved and affected by the sadness of Short's "performance" and by the honesty of her emotional account.  This presentation establishes the voyeurism of the character - again, as surrogate - but also further reinforces De Palma's belief in the power of the image to go deeper than reality; to provide a canvas onto which the audience can project their own concerns - their obsessions and desires - or the way in which emotions are shared by our own connection to the subject matter, or to the actor on-screen.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Bleichert as audience member, sitting down to watch a film.

Greetings [Brian De Palma, 1968]:
Jon Rubin, as surrogate for De Palma in Greetings; the reality, breaking the fourth wall of his own obsession.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Bleichert moved by the performance of Short; her emotions more real than his own.

As the narrative develops, the obligations to the plot and the gestures towards the iconography of classic film noir keep the story moving in a sometimes awkward, often convoluted way, but it is this scene - the 'image' - that De Palma continually returns to; the presence of Short trapped, like a ghost or spirit, within the frames of a film.  The point of reference here is Vertigo (1958).  Like the protagonist in Hitchcock's classic, Bleichert falls in love with the image of Short - this dead woman - and then attempts to project the same image (a reconstruction) onto the form of someone else.

The investigation, in this sense, is less about finding 'the truth' behind the murder, but in developing the fractured psychology of the Bleichert character as it is corrupted by the violence of the (modern) world.  Again, as with the characters in Hitchcock's film, the attempts made by the protagonist to "re-create" Short in the form of the no less mysterious Madeleine Linscott suggests an element of necrophilia - as Bleichert's dalliance with Linscott becomes an effort to resurrect the dead image of Elizabeth Short - but also a kind of self-reflexive comment on the emulation of the motion picture; the way audiences are seduced by the fantasy of such images; those desires of the silver screen.

Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958]:
Scotty in Vertigo, looking for Madeleine in a room full of images; representations.

The Black Dahlia [Brian De Palma, 2006]:
Bleichert finds his own obsession with Short in the image of another woman (here also named Madeleine).

When critics complained that Kirshner was the only highlight of De Palma's film they missed the real masterstroke of its delicate direction.  Through Kirshner, Elizabeth Short becomes more than just a tragic figure - a victim in this macabre family drama, full of betrayals and degradation - but a genuine symbol of all things human.  Unlike Short, the other characters explored in the film (Bleichert, his partner Lee Blanchard, their go-between Kay Lake, Linscott, etc) are far from victims of circumstance; they're not even sympathetic, in the conventional sense.  They might have struggled or suffered against the system, in their own particular way, but they soon gave into it.  They became more ruthless, heartless and corrupt as an effort to stay afloat.  Lacking the sensitivity of the film's poor victim, they shed their innocence and became complicit in this hideous machine that made such tragedy possible.  Their corruption and their role in this society (one that treats people as objects, to be used and disposed of, like the actors in a film) - makes them all, to some small extent, responsible for the Dahlia's fate.

The recording of Short - this final living statement; a declaration that plays as an empty echo over the eventual shots of her now-desecrated corpse - reminds us (Bleichert and the audience as well) of the once-living reality that exists behind every crime; behind every image.  In comparison with the deliberately stilted performances of the three main leads and the over-the-top scenery chewing of the supporting cast, the subtlety of Kirshner - her genuine performance within this context of a staged one (where the mask finally slips away to reveal the honest emotions beneath) - makes the pain of Short, her suffering and her plight, all the more pitiful, authentic and "real."


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