- director Brian De Palma (at the Le Paradis interview, 2002)
Over the last couple of years on the blog here, we've studied the films of controversial directors whose work continues to be inspirational, influential and (to some...) infuriating, including William Friedkin and John Carpenter.
In the weeks ahead, I'll be turning my gaze to the forty-year career of another oft-misunderstood talent from the formalist school: Brian De Palma. Today, I'm posting this brief, general overview of the artist to provide a bit of background for the forthcoming reviews and analyses.
A native New Jersey-ite, who has been alternatively termed either "The American Godard" or "the New Hitchcock," Brian De Palma is a director renowned for his finely-developed sense of intertextuality.
What that word means in this context is that De Palma often mines the works of other film masters (including Hitchcock, Godard, Kubrick, Antonioni, Wilder, and Eisenstein) for inspiration, and then re-purposes that work as building blocks in his own pictures. He uses those movie inspirations as both visual and thematic "quotations."
The train station staircase action sequence in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) is a perfect example of the former (a visual allusion). It borrows heavily from -- and then goes way beyond -- the famous Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The footage of Double Indemnity (1944) that opens Femme Fatale (2002) is an example of the latter, a thematic foundation for the noir story that follows; a starting point with which to compare and contrast.
De Palma is a member of the "Movie Brat" generation that includes Lucas, Coppola, Milius, Spielberg, Shrader, and Scorsese. He understands -- like all great film artists -- that "form is created through content" and exerts an auteur's iron control over both. De Palma is regarded, according to New York's David Edelstein, as "one of cinema's most hypnotic stylists, a virtuoso whose multilayered tracking shots can expand your perception of space, time, and motion onscreen."
One commonly deployed De Palma shot is the the split screen -- which is used to represent everything from a fractured psyche to the light-speed cause-and-effect of directed telekinetic energy (in Carrie ). Another is the unbroken tracking shot of remarkable duration (see: Snake Eyes  or The Bonfire of the Vanities ), utilized to preserve or establish for the audience a sense of space/geography and dizzying pace.
Also, De Palma appears obsessed with how we see (and how the camera sees), a fetish which has resulted in the filmmaker's work frequently being labeled "voyeuristic." More specifically, what De Palma's movies focus on is the act of seeing gone wrong; of mistaken sight. Of seeing one thing, but registering it (and therefore interpreting it...) incorrectly.
His cinematic efforts also frequently feature doppelgangers/doubles, intense violence (leavened by a macabre sense of humor...), camera technology as part of plot problem/resolution, dream sequences, and narrative u-turns that precipitously drop the bottom out of long-held audience assumptions about decorum.
De Palma has successfully toiled in a number of genre modes. He has crafted memorable crime dramas (Scarface , The Untouchables , Carlito's Way , Black Dahlia ), war movies (Casualties of War , Redacted ), Hitchcockian-style thrillers (Sisters ), Obsessed , Dressed to Kill , Body Double , Raising Cain ), straight-up horror films (Carrie , The Fury ) and more "mainstream" blockbuster films, such as Mission Impossible (1996).
Like Carpenter, De Palma has often been attacked because of the violent images that appear in his films. He's been called a "misogynist" on more than one occasion (the release of Dressed to Kill; the release of Body Double), and his use of psychology has often been termed "facile" by critics. Recently, De Palma was accused of being unpatriotic for showcasing American troops in Iraq in what was termed "an unfavorable light" in Redacted. Although an acknowledged genius in terms of film style, many unappreciative critics still widely refer to De Palma as a hack.
"I've always been against the establishment from day one," De Palma told one interviewer. "I've never been accepted as that conventional artist. Whatever you say about David Lynch or Martin Scorsese, they are considered major film artists and nobody can argue with that. I've never had that. I've had people say it about me. And I've had people say that I'm a complete hack and you know, derivative and all those catchphrases that people use for me. So I've always been controversial. People hate me or love me."
First on the docket in our De Palma Retrospective, my personal favorite of his Hitchockian oeuvre: Dressed to Kill (1980). I'll post a detailed review on Friday, so if you get a chance, rent it, queue it, buy it, or pull it down off your DVD shelf and get to watching...