The seventies was also a period in which a new genre of film emerged, the modern women’s picture (Lewis, 2008, pp. 347-349), which, along with movements of women’s liberation (such as the right to equal pay), had an effect on the way women would view their identity in regards to gender. Whereas becoming a woman in earlier times would have meant less, womanhood was emerging as something powerful and strong. The media at the time was highly concerned with the de-mystification of female sexual identity (Bathrick, 1977), and DePalma took these current and relevant worries, and played them out in a genre that is known for its concern with anxiety and crisis of identity, the horror genre.
Whilst the protagonist in Phantom of the Paradise, Winslow, is male, he experiences a similar concept of a life-altering transition that also deals with anxieties over a struggle with identity. In Dressed to Kill (DePalma, 1980), the character of Dr.Elliot, a man who masquerades as a woman named Bobbi, is perceived as monstrous (Creed, 1992), which connotes the perception that a loss of identity in ones genre creates monstrosity. This can be taken on to apply to Phantom of the Paradise; that any kind of loss of identity through an unnatural appearance will remove from the person what makes them human, and ‘normal’.
When Winslow is disfigured, he acquires a mask to cover his face. The change in physical appearance turns him from a geeky loner, but still intrinsically male in appearance, into an androgynous monster. Strauss discusses identity as being ‘connected with the fateful appraisals made of oneself-by oneself and by others’ (1997, p. 11), that is, that one’s identity is constructed by the individual’s view of self, and the reaction of others towards them.
Winslow is seen by others as a monster – and this results in a construction of his self-identity that he is a monster, so therefore commits monstrous acts, such as murder. This is also the case with Carrie – when we see her covered in blood at her school prom, her appearance is monstrous, representative of her internal change, and she goes on a murderous rampage against those who have wronged her. In both cases, the external is a representative of the internal.
A running theme in De Palma’s films is the use of the shower scene (Lewis, 2008), which features in Dressed to Kill and Obsession (DePalma, 1976), as well as Carrie and Phantom of the Paradise. These scenes often mark pivotal moments in the film’s narrative. In Carrie, it is the moment she discovers her menstruation, and in Phantom of the Paradise, where Winslow makes his threat to Beef, the singer chosen by Swan, to not sing his music. The significance of the shower is undeniable – when one is showering, they are completely naked, stripped of all outer markers of identity, and this can be representative of vulnerability – particularly with Carrie, as at this moment, she is vulnerable to her own self and the change in her body, and also to her classmates and the outside world.
When dealing with identity in Phantom of the Paradise, DePalma goes beyond just the identity of an individual and brings across themes of group identity, in regards to the music industry. In an interview, he discusses how the rock industry (in relation to the film industry) is ‘more grotesque […], a little weirder, they look stranger, more outrageous’ (Stuart, 1976). This idea of outward identity is a common theme shown in the film’s iconography. The Juicy Fruits, the manufactured group in Phantom of the Paradise supports this, and shows how fluid identity in the form of outward appearance can be.
At the beginning of the film we see them performing in a fashion representative of 50s rock and roll stars, and later on giving homage to, or perhaps even parodying, bands like the Beach Boys from the sixties with a surfer style, cashing in on nostalgia of those periods (Booker, 2007). There is another drastic image change when we see the show’s opening later in the film, a the band look strikingly different. To fit in with a gothic theme and iconography, they are manipulated to fit with this look, and their makeup resembles that of rock band Kiss. This manipulation of physical identity could then be taken as a comment by DePalma on another scale of identity itself, the identity of a whole industry, and the manner in which it treats its artists as interchangeable entities – and this is shown again in the treatment of Winslow, he is used and then cast aside without conscience.
DePalma’s films not only deal greatly with themes of identity, but identity on a variety of levels, from the overlooked, victimized underdog, usually in juxtaposition with an entity far larger than them – such as popular school cliques, and even as massive as the music industry itself. In the end, although the protagonists fight against these forces after a personal transition and a struggle with their own identity, the end of the film marks their deaths. The idea of transition is a major thematic concern, in Carrie’s case, she experiences a journey of self discovery, in Winslow’s, his disfigurement and the affect it has on his musical career. These transitions involve the characters finding confusion with their identity, and this confusion is, on many levels, not fully resolved in the conclusions of either film.
Bathrick, S. (1977). Carrie Ragtime: The Horror of Growing Up Female. Retrieved January 17, 2010, from Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC14folder/Carrie.html
Booker, M. (2007). Postmodern Hollywood: what’s new in film and why it makes us feel so strange. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Citron, M. (1977). Carrie meets Marathon Man. Retrieved January 17, 2010, from Jumpcut: A Review of Contemporary Media: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC14folder/MarathonMan.html
Creed, B. (1992). Dark Desires: Male masochism in the horror film. In S. (. Cohan, ; I. (. Hark, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in the Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge.