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  • Deals with the Devil:Faust, Contracts, and the Dangers of Mechanical Reproduction in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
  • Annette Davison (bio)

Yeah, I think of lot of that [bitterness] is motivated by my own experiences, going into big buildings, bringing in your material that nobody pays any attention to or rips off in one way or another. That's the life of the business. I don't think it is "bitterness" necessarily. That's the way it is and you have to be able to operate within that reality.

Nothing wrong with Hollywood. If you're in a position to control your destiny, it's the greatest place in the world.

—Brian De Palma on Phantom of the Paradise1

Brian De Palma's film Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is decidedly "palimpsestuous," to use a term introduced by Gérard Genette in his discussion of the relationships between texts.2 A palimpsest is here defined as "a text derived from another preexistent text."3 While this is most obvious in the case of pastiche or parody—wherein the intended meaning of a text is dependent upon the perceive's recognition of its relationship with an earlier text or style—Genette argues that the same applies more generally to every new text that involves a relationship with an earlier one:4 hypertext and hypotext, respectively. "The hypertext invites us to engage in a relational reading, the flavor of which, however perverse, may well be condensed in an adjective recently coined by Philippe Lejeune: a palimpsestuous reading. To put it differently, … one who really loves texts must wish from time to time to love (at least) two together."5 The excessive hypertextuality of Phantom of the Paradise offers audioviewers the opportunity to experience many more than two texts. The film refers to and adapts not just Gaston Leroux's novel and various screen adaptations of it, but also Goethe's Faust: Part 1 (1808), Gounod's 1859 operatic adaptation of Goethe's play, and Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). It also features imitations of particular styles or idiolects from cinema (including, but not [End Page 201] limited to, those of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles) and popular music (The Beach Boys, Sha-Na-Na, and so on). As Cormac Newark points out in the introduction to this special issue, one of the most striking attributes of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra is its capacity for excursion into other, apparently unrelated narrative worlds; this adaptation is remarkable for making space for so many incursions, from so many different media.

De Palma's plot positively thematizes the relationship between hypertext and hypotext. Winslow Leach (William Finlay), a naïve but ambitious songwriter, has his unfinished rock "cantata" about the Faust legend stolen by a predatory music producer, Swan (Paul Williams). Swan plans to have the Faust cantata performed by his own stable of performers at the opening of his new "rock palace," the Paradise. Leach's cantata will thus become the hypotext to Swan's hypertextual songs. This is not, however, a situation that Leach is willing to accept. He demands credit as the author of his musical masterpiece and believes that only he can perform it in a manner that is true to the work. Leach thus seeks to reclaim ownership and control of his music and resist its reimagining as hypotext. In this way, De Palma's film examines the meaning of the familiar presence of Faust in Leroux's novel in a unique way. Rather than commenting on the (boring) ubiquity of the opera in the context of nineteenth-century operatic repertoire, or its embodiment of soprano apotheosis, or even the original play's treatment of good, evil, and the temptations of beauty, De Palma's Phantom presents instead an extravagant and compelling meditation on corrosive contracts and the idea of the extent of (artistic) ownership.

Phantom of the Paradise elaborates a conflict of business versus art that lies at the heart of any industry involving the production and dissemination of creative work under capitalism, whether in movies or music—the nineteenth-century Paris Opéra included. Indeed...


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pp. 201-220
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