Pourquoi Paris?

That Brian De Palma’s 1974 masterpiece Phantom of the Paradise would be a smash success in Winnipeg was expected–but Paris? Pourquoi? What prompted Parisians to put down their profiteroles, bunch up their berets and fork over their francs for the Phantom?

A recent trip (honeymoon in fact!) to the City of Lights may have provided the answer.

But first, school time. Phantom’s basic plot (and its title) can be attributed to French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera) written by Gaston Leroux and published in 1910. That, in turn, drew its inspiration from the classic French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), written by French novelist Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and published in 1756.


At the intersection of Death Drive and Swan Song Plaza is the genius of Production Designer Jack Fisk. (photo courtesy of the Swan Archives)

There are also the film adaptations:  Universal Studios produced the first (silent) version in 1925, featuring Lon Chaney, Sr. and Mary Philbin. The scene  in which Chaney’s mask is snatched off is to reveal his quite horrifying visage (featuring ingenious makeup techniques created by Chaney himself) is one of the most shocking and replayed moments in the history of cinema.

A later version was produced in 1943 and features Claude Rains as the Phantom. Notably, the Phantom’s facial disfigurement is caused by accident–him having acid thrown in his face–rather than him being born disfigured as per Leroux’s original story. (This switch became part of the subsequent Phantom retellings, and the manner in which Winslow Leach is disfigured would become even more outrageous in 1974.)

Brian De Palma’s choice of familiar source material to ground his production of Phantom/Phantom of the Fillmore/Phantom of the Paradise would have been a canny box office guarantee of sorts:  consider what his colleague and friend George Lucas said later of Star Wars:  “The title Star Wars was an insurance policy…we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars.”

Metropolitain: a font and a sign. Photo of the Metro station near Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris, taken by the author, Sept 2015

But while having familiar and also very French source material would have appealed to Parisians, there is something else that would have stuck out like a baguette from a grocery bag:  the film’s typography. Phantom of the Paradise is saturated in the iconic Parisian font Metropolitain, associated with signage over the entrances of the Paris Métro (subway) and designed in the “art nouveau” style in 1899 by Hector Guimard.  As further reinforcement, there is a secondary font that is also associated with art nouveau movement–Bocklin–that had a resurgence in the early 1970s due to its use by Roger Dean on various prog-rock album covers.

French audiences would have been forgiven for expecting to find one of their own having infiltrated the production. But it was a decision made by an American: Production Designer Jack Fisk.  His choice of Metropolitain/Bocklin was an aesthetic masterstroke, one that would have linked, for French audiences, the avant garde tale of Winslow Leach all the way back to the Faust opera being staged in Leroux’s source novel.  And proved that, perhaps, someone was actually paying attention.

The familiar Death Records knock-off black T-shirt, featuring the Metropolitain font. Photo by (and of) the author, Paris, Sept. 2015

The familiar Death Records knock-off black T-shirt, featuring the Metropolitain font. Photo by (and of) the author, Paris, Sept. 2015

One can quite literally not avoid seeing these fonts in Paris. They permeate the city and its signage. Climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower and you’ll see them promoting Cameroon Airlines in the gift shop. Come back down and they’re being used to sell ice cream in the window of a nearby café.

The success of Phantom of the Paradise in Paris is frustratingly anecdotal and remains, even at the end of the year 2015, poorly documented (did it play for a year? Every night at midnight for 10 years? In one cinema or dozens?).  Yet, its influence on young Parisian peepers has been confirmed by all manner of artists, filmmakers and musicians, from Deborah Znaty to Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel Christo de Homem who often cite the film as inspiration for the look and sound of their Daft Punk duo.

I dedicate this post to the people of Paris and offer a heartfelt transatlantic hug from one Phantom town to the other.



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Paul Williams: Still Alive – Winnipeg Premiere

The circle is complete.

Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary ‘Paul Williams:  Still Alive’ will have its Winnipeg debut Saturday, March 23rd at the Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque Theatre.  Following the film on opening night, there will be a live Skype interview with the director.

“A moving and affectionate portrait of one of the huge pop icons of 1970, Grammy and Oscar winner Paul Williams, legendary songwriter of Rainy Days and Mondays, We’ve Only Just Begun and Just An Old Fashioned Love Song. The film opens with a scene of Williams in Winnipeg as a guest at Phantompalooza 2 where he was lauded for his role in the film Phantom of the Paradise. Williams wrote songs for David Bowie, Anne Murray and Kermit the Frog (The Rainbow Connection) was an endless guest of TV talk shows and made many movie appearances before he crashed and burned with drugs and alcohol. Still touring, Kessler probes Williams with questions of his fame and current life of playing Vegas nightspots and hotel venues.”

For more information, please visit Cinematheque here.

Read my original review here.



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Today being the 7th anniversary of Phantompalooza, as one of its organizers, I’d like to share some thought and memories about the late Mr. Finley.

First things first:  Phantompalooza would never have happened if William Finley hadn’t said “yes”.  Getting the “yes, I’ll do it!” e-mail was unprecedented because a) he was nearly impossible to contact and b) had never said “yes” to anything in the past.  But yes, we got a message through and after a few days of hesitation* (see footnote) he let us know he was game and he was coming to Winnipeg!

I had the pleasure of driving Bill and his family to a couple of events and I have to admit it was always unnerving to look in the rear-view mirror and see Winslow Leach staring back at me.  Bill was fairly quiet and self-contained, but when he spoke everyone shut up and listened, because what he had to say was always profound and meaningful and more often than not hilarious.  Stick a microphone or camera or notepad in his face and he would turn it on and deliver the goods with the most articulate and passionate string of sound bites you could imagine.  Our local media loved him.

We organized a press conference for Bill and Gerrit the morning after they arrived in Winnipeg.  We invited everyone in the media we could think of, and lo and behold everyone showed up!  The Garrick Theatre was abuzz with activity as there were cameras, bright lights and crews swarming around our celebrity guests, who were grinning and lapping up the long-overdue attention.  Over the next three days we watched in awe as media coverage began to spread, first blanketing the local airwaves, until, intrigued by the sheer audacity of the event, the national media picked it up.  Bill and Gerrit were like proud fathers, cackling as they watched themselves lead the national news on their hotel room TV.

But my favourite memory of Bill was something that happened away from the hustle and bustle of the Phantompalooza events.  I discovered that I was very shy around our celebrity guests; as one of the event organizers I felt that having access to them should be enough, and deliberately resisted asking Bill or Gerrit for an autograph or ‘grip-and-grin’ photo.  But … at the end of the weekend we were suddenly dropping them off at the airport and I had to admit I kinda sorta regretted not having a memento.  I finally gave in and asked the Finleys if I could take their picture, and to my relief Bill just spun me around and grabbed me in a group hug photo with his wife Susan and son Dashiell, and if I ever need reminding that grace and decency still exist in this world, I need only look at this photo of the Finleys.

It was a thrill to have him up here and see him finally get the recognition for Phantom he deserved.  He was a gentleman, a scholar, an artist, and one cool cat.  I’ll miss him.

[* “I first heard about [Phantompalooza] from one of the original organizers, Gloria Dignazio, who got ahold of me and asked “Will you come up?”  She said, “I’ll send you some pictures.”  Now this was the big mistake:  her e-mail was incredibly gracious and very well-written, but the follow-up was a picture of what turned out to be the main group that was putting the show together, but they were all for some reason dressed in biker gear and posed with a motorcycle in front of what looked like a derelict building with a blank marquee!  “This is where we’re going to show it and this is us!”  So I was trying to figure out how to get out of it!  I wrote back politely explaining why I was a little nervous about this, without saying they looked like motorcycle thugs, and two of them wrote incredibly impassioned pleas to come up to Winnipeg and why I should attend and why it was important.  I finally said, “Oh, screw it” to myself and accepted.”  – William Finley interview, FANGORIA magazine, Issue 257, October 2006.]




William Finley (1940-2012)

William Finley, star of our beloved ‘Phantom of the Paradise’, passed away suddenly after a brief hospitalization on Saturday, April 14th in New York.  He was 71.

He is survived by his wife Susan and son Dashiell.

William Finley in Winnipeg at Phantompalooza, April 2005We had the pleasure of bringing Mr. Finley to Winnipeg twice, where he was Phantompalooza’s guest of honour (with Gerrit Graham) in 2005, and part of the entire cast reunion in 2006.  We will remember him fondly as a real trouper – game for anything – and always willing to do one more interview and sign one more autograph for the Winnipeg fans, whom he adored.  We will miss him terribly.

Notable tributes:




Phantom Soundtrack Remastered on CD

Well this certainly sounds…tasty!  Culture Factory USA presents a “strictly limited collector’s edition” of the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack on CD, released today in Canada via Amazon.ca.

A quick glance at the Culture Factory USA website reveals a fondness for Moon Martin, Mink DeVille and The Motels, and promises of deluxe vinyl replica cardboard sleeves along with high-definition remastering in 96kHz/24-bits.  An odd roster to be sure, but we’ll take some of this hi-def remastering wherever we can get it.

Amazon.ca lists a November 22 release date, but is temporarily out of stock.  It ranked as high as #44 in soundtracks; thank you, Winnipeg!

Amazon.com features a Dec. 27 release date.

The original CD release of the soundtrack was back in 1992 and, while fairly decent sounding, was a traditional AAD affair with no special treatment.  (I fondly recall standing in line with about 30 other Phantom fans at Record Baron the day it came out.)

There was a Japanese remastering back in 2002 which apparently sounded almost identical to the domestic release.  Let’s hope the master tapes survived the fire that tragically tore through the Swan Archives in 1974.


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