The Pleasure Of Being Cuckolded (Or Is That Castrated?): Notes inspired by some links between Brian DePalma's "Hi, Mom!" (1970) and "Body Double" (1984)
This is my contribution to the Brian DePalma Blogathon, hosted by Cinema Viewfinder, where it is cross-posted. Thanks to Tony Dayoub for encouragement.
In Brian DePalma's giddy, absurdist, radical early feature Hi, Mom, Robert DeNiro plays a disturbingly disaffected young man named Jon Rubin. The character was introduced in DePalma's prior film, 1969's Greetings. He's an ardent voyeur and would-be filmmaker, and he's got an inspiration. He intends to invent gonzo porn some two decades avant le lettre by surreptitiously filming himself getting it on with woman from the building across from his own (a fantasy object he's discovered in his obsessive peeping, played by Jennifer Salt). Of course, in order to make the scheme work, he's got to meet, attract, and seduce her first, which he does by putting on the mask of a sensitive square and inventing some malarkey about a computer date. Once he's gotten her out—they attend a double feature of David and Lisa and Porgy and Bess before going to dinner—he elicits her sympathy by relating this tale of woe:
"...reminds me of something that happened to me. I was coming home... I was living with a girl, Barbara, a few years ago and, uh, it was her birthday and I came home and I had presents and, uh, cake and candles and all kinds of confetti and crepe paper, and I was rushing up the stairs, ecstatic. I opened the door very quietly, crept in, and I heard the shower running. Well I open the door to the bathroom...and I hear some voices...and all of a sudden I open the shower curtain and there...there she is with another person...they were naked...and the funny thing about it is he had this kind of laugh, this kind of evil grin...and it really threw me and I naturally ran out of the place in a state of shock, I didn't know what to do..."
As tales of cuckolding and in flagrante discovery go, it's pretty banal, and wouldn't be worth noting had not DePalma put nearly exactly the same scenario on film almost 15 years later in his controversial Hitchcock/porn-schlock pastiche Body Double.
There's no birthday in this version. Craig Wasson (perpetually hapless and anticipating the New Male stylings of, um, Bill Maher, yeesh) plays struggling actor Jake Scully, whose vertigo, I mean claustrophobia, I mean claustrophobia as Brian DePalma and co-screenwriter Robert J. Avrech have decided to imagine it, compels him to blow a springing-from-the-coffin take in Vampire's Kiss, the B-horror picture he's starring in. Feigning sympathy, director Rubin (no, the name of this DePalma stand in, portrayed with near-unseemly relish by Dennis Franz, is not a coincidence) gives Jake the rest of the day off. Goofy smile on his face Jake zips away in his sharp blue vintage Mustang (note the late-Hitchcock homage in the not-very-accomplished rear projection) to Tail O' The Pup where he gets a few dogs. Once at his apartment we see he's preparing a meal for two. There's a neon sign reading "Jake [heart] Carol" on a table. Jake goes off to find Carol, and there are a number of tracking POV shots attesting to coupledom; we see the "family" dog, and two dressing mannequins with the couples' head shots tacked to the heads, and so on. Jake continues to smile as he hears some laughing voices, but loses the grin as he cracks open a door...
...to see his beloved Carol straddling Some Dude.
Oops! (Carol is, we note here, played by future ReAnimator scream queen Barbara Crampton, the ineffable love object of het perv cinephiles the world over.) DePalma here chooses to omit Some Dude's laugh and evil grin (although we did hear the laugh prior to discovery), but it's not really necessary. We get the idea like nobody's business.
And it is here that we turn to our good friend Robin Wood and his invaluable 1986 text Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan. One of our favorite Woodsian devices is the bold-pronouncement-right-off-the-bat, as in "Scarface belongs with the comedies," and the opening of his Vietnam/Reagan chapter on DePalma does not disappoint in this respect: "Brian DePalma's interesting, problematic, frequently frustrating movies are quite obsessive about castration, either literal (Sisters, Dressed to Kill), or metaphorical (all the rest)." (An asterisk after this sentence leads us to this note: 'Since this chapter was written, Body Double [though it is far from being among DePalma's best films] has amply confirmed its [sic] argument.")
Now people talk about castration as if it's a bad thing.
But if we look at the storyline of Body Double, and the character arc of Jake Scully, as a complete whole, we can discern that his cuckolding/castrating constituted something of a liberating event. The betrayal deprives him of a "normal" monogamous relationship, and motivates him to jump off the wagon he's apparently been on (with no real ill effects over time, as it happens). But it frees him to self-actualize in a new way. He gets to wave his freak flag, wild and high, indulging in a voyeurism that, yes, will embroil him in a dangerous and horrific web of murder but will also turn him into a porn stud and mystery solver par excellence. And it is only after he accepts the notion that all human interactions of the putatively normal sort resolve in betrayals both ordinary and awful that he can conquer his phobia, regain the vampire part he was in fact fired from, and "get" the "girl," the girl here in the once-unlikely form of porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). One assumes that Jake and Holly have a somewhat more "open" relationship than Jake and Carol did.
Let's also assume, for the moment, that aside from its value in gaining the confidence of would-be porn object Judy Bishop, Jon Rubin's story is also true, as it were. If so, the cuckolding/castration is also a defining moment in the making of a radical—in Mom, Rubin subsequently becomes politicized and emerges as a full-blown domestic terrorist. The undermining (as Wood has it) of the traditional male position forces the male to confront ideas, forces, and lures that he has never before contemplated. It gives birth, in a sense, to a new man, no longer an oppressor but a potential partner in the reimagining of societal norms.
APPENDIX: On learning that I was contemplating writing about Body Double, my old friend Joseph Failla e-mailed me these thoughts:
...[W]hile DePalma's detractors are probably on their steadiest ground with this film, DOUBLE does in fact comes across as a culmination of all his themes (voyeurism, violence, Hitchcock), indulgences, and excesses up to that point.
I'm sure you'll remember our jaw dropping expressions of disbelief when we first saw DOUBLE together. Starting with De Palma's idea of what a low budget vampire flick looks like, Dennis Franz's casting as that film's director with a vision (even then we noticed how much he resembled De Palma), Craig Wasson's wimpy lead performance, the villain basically identifying himself upon arrival, the ridiculously kinky sex scenes, the overly intricate tracking shots, the choice of electric power drill as murder weapon, and the hilarious moment when Frankie Goes to Hollywood shows up in the middle of the porn film within the film. Most unpardonable of all is De Palma's insistence at shoehorning his story into the well known frame work of Hitchcock classics (even going so far as to cast a supporting actor who's the spitting image of both Wendell Corey and Henry Jones,—"Nice save Scully!"), that whatever potential the narrative had to stand on its own was long gone before it got started. However, while acknowledging all of the above, I still find DOUBLE compulsively watchable and I've seen it at least as many times as his revered successes.
When we first heard that De Palma was going to explore the limits of censorship by setting his thriller in the world of pornography, there was no way that the film that was eventually released could ever match the movie we imagined. Even though we may have been disappointed in that respect (his work in GREETINGS and HI MOM! better addressed those themes), we enjoyed his technical audacity just the same. Something I wouldn't necessarily champion again until FEMME FATALE, which also felt totally fabricated, but in a much more inventive and satisfying fashion.
BTW, Melanie Griffith is quite good in the role intended for an actual adult film star; this, as you know, was years before Sasha Grey was given an opportunity to appear in a somewhat mainstream movie of her own.
The adult film star Joe refers to was Annette Haven, who DePalma never refers to by name in the making-of shorts included on the most recent DVD of Double. I'll have to look into this "Sasha Grey" character.