The publication of Chuck Klosterman's essay collection IV coincided nicely with the release of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, in that Klosterman provides a useful term to contextualize the often misunderstood auteur - he's Advanced. Advancement theory, Klosterman reports, was created in 1990 at the University of South Carolina, and defines Advancement as "a cultural condition in which an Advanced individual—i.e., a true genius—creates a piece of art that 99 percent of the population perceives to be bad. However, this is not because the work itself is flawed; this is because most consumers are not Advanced. [...] The bottom line is this: When a genius does something that appears idiotic, it does not necessarily mean he suddenly sucks. What it might mean is that he's doing something you cannot understand, because he has Advanced beyond you." In the Advanced camp, Klosterman cites Lou Reed, David Byrne, and Val Kilmer, and I'd argue that De Palma belongs on that list. With The Black Dahlia, he has made a movie that isn't at all about what it claims to be about, and he doesn't seem to care whether or not we like it, or even get it. While there are plenty of valid reasons to hate The Black Dahlia, it seems foolish to dismiss it - you may not like it now, but let's talk about it in five years.
Adapted from a James Ellroy novel that told a fictional story centering around the real-life unsolved 1947 murder of an unknown young actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), The Black Dahlia first introduces us to two L.A. cops and ex-boxers, Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as they meet each other during a zoot suit riot, become partners after a bout staged for publicity, and become close friends who love the same woman, Blanchard's articulate, elusive girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). But when Blanchard, obsessed with the desire to avenge a personal tragedy, gets them assigned to the Short case, both men, to paraphrase another of De Palma's tormented heroes, forswear themselves and break laws they swore to defend. But Blanchard's old sins, the love triangle, and Bleichert's affair with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) - an upper-class whore with a connection to the Dahlia - transform a police procedural into a tangled web of hidden motives and secret desires. Critics who complained that the plot is convoluted are better off watching old episodes of Columbo; it's transparently obvious that De Palma (like Ellroy) is both employing and distorting genre archetypes to expose the underlying truths and ambiguities that motivate our stories and, consequently, the ways in which we understand our own lives. Love it or hate it, but at least acknowledge that it isn't a mistake.
De Palma's films often contain a Rosetta Stone, and here it comes in the form of Betty Short's studio audition reel, which Bleichert revisits throughout the film, obsessed. Kirshner is fantastic as Short, creating in just a few scenes a young girl with dreams of stardom that allow her to ignore the bleak reality of her life - she's alternately flighty, endearing, distant, and deeply sad, and her recitation of Vivian Leigh's dialogue from Gone With the Wind is more emotionally affecting than the real thing. De Palma cameos offscreen, impatiently barking direction at Short; like Michael Powell in Peeping Tom, De Palma has taken the role of the cold, manipulative director. It's a comment on his perceived misanthropy, and it's also an acknowledgement of his ability to hold a young ingenue's dreams in the palms of his hand. De Palma hasn't been this reflective since Body Double, another film that both satirizes the crasser aspects of the dream industry and indicts the filmmaker in the process (ironically, that film was also panned upon its release, yet one review of The Black Dahlia complained that De Palma may never make a movie as great as Body Double again). In these scenes, De Palma is acknowledging the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience - we have asked to be manipulated, and De Palma wishes to manipulate us. But while The Black Dahlia, like most of his films, delights in that manipulation (the staircase sequence is phenomenal), it's also a profoundly personal exploration of the morality of that relationship. At the end, our hero is haunted by the memory of all he has experienced, and the audience, having taken the journey with him, also shares that memory. De Palma is clearly aware of the influence he has on our experience, and here, as with Femme Fatale, he is concerned with the implications of that power. While De Palma's trademark smartass behavior and playful camerawork are on display, this is also an exceptionally mature film.
It's true that all the metatextual games at play here sometimes detract from the film on a surface level. De Palma adheres dogmatically to the style and conventions of noir, which results in several scenes that are overly talky and heavy with exposition (not usually a problem for the director). And Johansson, while luminously shot by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, is stuck playing an underwritten archetype - the devoted blonde with a sad past (though she does as much as she can with very little). But it's a worthwile exchange for the pleasurable tension that occurs as De Palma simultaneously analyzes and indulges his fetishes. This is clear in the creepy stag film that unexpectedly references The Man Who Laughs, the strange all-lesbian musical number featuring K.D. Lang (I'm not kidding), and in the appearance of none other than the great William Finley as a silent villain - De Palma is not only referencing Hollywood's distant past, he's referencing his own.
Deconstruction and self-perception dovetail most succesfully with Swank's terrific perfomance. Casting Mo Cuishle as a vampy, Bette Davis-esque tart dressed in black, De Palma is at once using Swank to remind us that in a less shallow time, unconventional beauties who possessed authority and strength could become sex icons, and he's also confessing his admittedly unusual attraction to Hilary Swank (which I admit that I share, so I may be biased). As for complaints that Swank looks nothing like Kirshner (though the characters repeatedly say so), I can only respond with a McBain-esque "That's the joke." The same goes for Fiona Shaw's hilariously over-the-top performance as Swank's mother - either you get it or you don't. But then, that's how it always is for De Palma.