Sunday, 9 November 2008

PLAYBACK (Brian de Palma, 1982)

Based on Raymond Chandler's final novel, which was a flop in 1958, Playback stars Theresa Russell as a young woman who checks into the Roosevelt Hotel in New York with the intention of killing herself after a week of contemplation. In a series of flashbacks we see her reasons, which include an abusive relationship. During the seven days she finds that her misfortune is replayed in a multitude of small ways (the 'playback' of the title), leading us to conclude that her being is karmically afflicted, and that wherever she might have gone, her fate would have been identical. Chandler's famous detective Philip Marlowe (played wearily by a bloodshot Dennis Quaid), is tracking the woman, and it is through his eyes that we see the action unfold.

The slow-burning, moribund subject matter might have meant that the movie, never destined to be a blockbuster, would have been criticised; perhaps De Palma's whizz-bang pastiches (here stylistically references Polanski's Repulsion, but this only serves to show that Russell, despite her charms, is no Catherine Deneuve) would have ruined the movie anyway; but a curious creative decision by de Palma proved to be the film's main talking point and it's critical undoing. De Palma claimed that the movie was a 'direct translation' of the novel rather than an adaptation, and that each line of the book was reproduced visually. 'If it says 'she walks into the room, then Theresa walked into the room. If it says she sits down, then Theresa sat down. But more than that: I wanted to reproduce Chandler's grammar, and attempt to get to the root of his style. And so each period in the novel, each full-stop, is replicated by a cut on screen, each comma is replicated by a camera pan, and each paragraph had to be, if not a new scene, then a new tone; this is where music helped me.'1

This conceit was a bridge too far for most, with the editing (there are nearly ten thousand cuts in the two-hour movie) creating a visual barrage that renders the story largely redundant. The camera constantly twitches, causing Roger Ebert to refer to the film as 'pure seasick epilepsy'2. Playback is generally seen as a curio, filed in the same drawer as other exercises in cinematic self-indulgence as Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1997) and Oliver Stone's real-time, 50-hour telling of the events between the deaths of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in Ruby (1998).

The explanation of the technique by de Palma led to the movie being popular on video in the late eighties, especially among students, who would organise 'Playback parties', which involved watching the movie with a copy of the novel, and following each of Chandler's lines as it appeared on the screen. 'Although you had to read very fast, and despite certain sections being a textual quagmire, it was entirely possible to see de Palma's effort,' said philosopher Slajov Zizek. He questioned the success of the effort however, and suggested the choice of the text was to blame. 'Why not The Big Sleep? Playback the novel failed not because Chandler had 'lost his magic', as was supposed at the time, but because the central discourse revolves around a pre-determined ethical position on the part of the protagonist. Chandler's success lay in his salient conversation within pertaining ambiguities... de Palma, further, reinforces this prefabrication with a further conceit of his own, filmic joke that undoes the gentle layering of denial that bewitches the medium'3

De Palma defended his experiment. 'I wanted to explore the supposed failure of the novel. It was originally conceived as a screenplay in 1947 or '48 before Chandler rewrote it as a novel, and I wondered if it was an error; if maybe it was supposed to be a movie; like a child who is forced into piano lessons when he has a natural talent for swinging a baseball bat.'4

As an aside, Todd Rundgren, rock music's grand conceptualist (who famously recorded near-exact covers of such baroque masterpieces as Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations) constructed a musical accompaniment for the movie using similar principles, using a drum beat to mark each cut. Todd Plays Playback, Sonically, was released and ignored in 1992. (Rundgren later repeated the trick for van Sant's Psycho).

Playback Directed by: Brian de Palma Produced by: Les Ashe Written by: Raymond Chandler Universal Studios Starring: Dennis Quaid, Theresa Russell Release Date US: March 1982 Release Date UK: June 1982 Running Time:122 mins Tagline: 'You Can't Escape Yourself'

1, 4. Sight and Sound, November 1986.
2.I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert, Andrews McMeel Publishing, April 2000.
3.Quantum Hokum by Slavoj Zizek, Verso, May 1999.


  1. De Ja Vu....I'm sure I've seen this...but it can't be! Not only do I want to see it (again?), but I want the soundtrack.

  2. This is one of those entries that in my mind seems so plausible that I wonder if I've seen it myself. Oh I remember, I did: Me and Tom Waits saw it at the old Cannon in Portsmouth in 1987, as a double feature with Masters of the Universe. Or maybe that was someone else.