The Bacchae in the Age of Aquarius: Brian DePalma’s ‘Dionysus in ‘69’

Terms like “interactive theater” may give you visions of cheesy plays, bad magic acts and pretentious performance art. However, if you root around to the modern day origins, with such art constructs as the Theatre of Cruelty, there are rewards to be found. Namely,  Brian DePalma’s Dionysus in ‘69. “Dionysus” is part filmed documentation of a live theater event and part experimental cinema, complete with being shown mostly in split-screen. (Predating 1973’s dual-vision feature Wicked Wicked, starring Tiffany Bolling and Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, by at least three years.)

The final result feels like Antonin Artaud meets Charlie Manson, with a growing sense of witchiness that lays dormant until a little past the half-hour mark. It snakes out and slowly wraps around you until the shocking and darkly funny ending. Adding to the Helter Skelter vibes, intentionally or not, all of the Dionysus devotees could be siblings of Atkins, Fromme, Watson, Beausoleil, Krenwinkle, Van Houten, et al. The only thing missing is a reference to the Beatles’ White Album. (Though if my had my druthers, I would use a Mort Garson album for the score. Though the live soundtrack, ranging from loose music to chants, is quite fine too.)

The first half hour, while good, comes across as what you would expect from a bunch of college students and actors putting on an alternative version of the famous Greek play, “The Bacchae.” It’s all half nudity, smiles, chanting, with the proceedings taking place in a large garage rather than a traditional stage set-up. It’s not until our lead Dionysus (the late, great William Finley) breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience, introducing himself as the former William Finley and is now the “reborn” Dionysus. We then get to witness the surrealistic ceremony of squirming bodies and our lead deity born.

The seemingly sweet hedonism quickly has a menacing flower-child in the form of a slight but strong in presence Pentheus (William Shepherd, whom DePalma fans might recognize as the freak-out concert goer in the finale of “Phantom of the Paradise”). Initially lurking around the pseudo-orgiastic goings-on like a bad penny until he makes himself known, revealing his intentions to murder Dionysus. But, it is only a matter of time before Pentheus is seduced by the lanky, golden-curled god. As the seduction happens, the sexuality and vibe in general goes from hippie-free-love to something in the milk ain’t right. At one point, audience members get involved in the breathing-tomb of flesh, while cult-like humming and chanting can be heard in unison for minutes on end in the background. It’s hypnotic and pregnant with ill-will until the inevitable death of Pentheus, as he is ripped apart by Dionysus’s followers.

But that’s not the real end and thanks to the glory of YouTube, you too are privy to the brilliant and dark as dirt finale. Despite the ancient roots of the play, Dionysus in ‘69 is more en point with the cultural and social atmosphere of the late 1960’s. Which is terribly fitting since no one quite did witchy and disturbing like the ancient Greeks. This is a tradition beautifully and faithfully upheld in DePalma’s infant work here. Now, if only more theater pieces were this good, then or now.

Posted by Heather Drain | Leave a comment
Magic, Madness & Dreamers: Tribute to William Finley

Finley in SISTERS
One of the most unappreciated roles in the world is the role of the character actor. It’s a cruelty, since the character actors are the ones with the real personalities and true charisma. Traditional leading stars are so bland in comparison. The Wonder White Bread of acting. Sadly, we have lost one of the best of this wondrous breed, with the passing of actor William Finley. Truly one of the most wholly unique and talented actors, Finley made an impression on me the moment I first saw him in his brief but brilliant turn as drunken carny magician, Marco the Magnificent in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. The shock of blonde hair, half painted Dracula make-up and the way his voice just oozed whiskey-soaked malaise bordering on malice made a mighty impression on my then teenage self. It was love at first sight, leading me to discover some of his better known work, namely with director Brian DePalma.

Both Finley and DePalma were Sarah Lawrence alumni, with a collaboration dating back to the director’s earliest underground works. This includes 1968’s Murder a la Mod and 1970’s Dionysus in ‘69, a film of an experimental version of the ancient Greek play, “The Bacchae.” (Two days before I heard of his passing, I had actually found my long lost DVD copy of this film.) One of his best early roles was in DePalma’s excellent Hitchcockian (right down to the Bernard Herrmann score) Sisters. Playing Margot Kidder’s charismatically creepy Quebecois husband Emil, Finley, with slicked back hair and a thin mustache, cuts an unforgettable figure. Despite all of his borderline villainy, he still infuses enough humanity into the role to make you feel empathy for this weird character.

However, Finley’s best known role, in a very rare leading turn, was DePalma’s rock musical, Phantom of the Paradise. Playing the titular Phantom, Finley is Winslow Leech, a gangly and passionate struggling composer who has written a rock opera based on the old German legend of “Faust.” Life takes a turn for the worse for Winslow as his work gets shanghaied by rock and roll impresario Swan (Paul Williams, who was also responsible for the fantastic score). Life soon imitates art, with the presence of the sweet and beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper) to further the potential heartbreak and redemption.

Phantom is undoubtedly one of the best rock musicals ever and Finley is perfect as our unlikely hero, fleshing out Winslow, an awkward genius with a temper, into a poetic, warm blooded, tragic figure. This turned out to be Finley’s only major starring role, though he did follow it up with a memorable turn in Tobe Hooper’s EC Comics film come to life, Eaten Alive, where he gets to bark like a dog and threatens to put a cigarette out IN HIS EYE. There were also smaller roles in the obscure Alan Arkin comedy Simon, DePalma’s The Fury and even the Chuck Norris flick, Silent Rage.

Roles become a little more sparse, with a few parts cropping up, like the Christian zealot/archeologist father in the 1995 Tobe Hooper film, Night Terrors. (A movie notable for Finley, equal gender nudity and Robert Englund as the Marquis De Sade, which makes it sound way better than it is.) Finley was an actor who should have been better utilized by Hollywood and the film industry at large. Like too many artists worth their salt, he did not get his proper due while he was still here.

But instead of wallowing in any past injustice, let’s make a wrong a right and celebrate the strange,stark and superb work of William Finley. The man’s acting legacy deserves it and you deserve to watch some great acting and filmmaking

Recommended Viewing: Sisters, Eaten Alive, Phantom of the Paradise, The Funhouse, Murder a la Mod,

Posted by Heather Drain | Leave a comment
Jessica Harper, Superstar

In Part II in what’s shaping up be my ongoing series devoted to underpraised American women (Part I here), today brings us Jessica Harper.  Familiar to many as “Suzy Bannion” in Dario Argento‘s Suspiria, and “Daisy” in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, it’s her “Phoenix” in Brian De Palma‘s Phantom of The Paradise which compels my (all too) frequent revisiting of that film. 

For those of you who’ve yet to see it (queue it up, already!), Phantom’s an updating of the Faust tale, where composer Winslow Leach (played by early De Palma muse William Finley), seeking to have his great “cantata” realized, sells his soul to a devil-in-disguise Swan (played, with Sterling Holloway slipperiness, by the film’s composer Paul Williams).

Typical for De Palma, the film offers up an art-versus-commerce parable that’s as bleak as it is unsparing.  But beyond its easy, showbiz cynicism, it’s Harper’s wonderfully committed performance that elevates Phantom into the realms of tragedy and heartbreak. 

Harper plays muse and soulmate to Leach.  But then, as these things happen (though less so, these days), Leach is horribly disfigured in a “record pressing mishap.”  Newly reborn as “The Phantom,” he makes an agreement with Swan to audition singers for his cantata.  This is where Harper slips in, and pretty much runs—or struts, really—off with the movie.

Beyond the forgettable Inserts, Phantom was Harper’s first feature role.  And in this clip here (newly added, raw footage outtakes—the actual clip has been scrubbed from YouTube), you get a definite sense that she’s not just auditioning for Swan, she’s auditioning for the rest of her life.

In fact, as the song goes along, you can actually see Harper finding her voice, as an actress, a person.  Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to this film—this clip.  It doesn’t seem like Harper’s acting at all.

Fortunately, after Phantom, Harper found her way to not just Allen and Argento, but into the relatively secure (by Hollywood standards) arms of Tom Rothman (co-chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment), where she’s now a wife, mother, children’s book author, occasional actress, and, of course, still special to me.

Jessica Harper Audition Scene: Special To Me

Posted by Bradley Novicoff | Leave a comment