Sunday, July 19, 2009

The De Palma Dossier

"The great movies that I remember are the ones that went right into my subconscious, and I don't know why they obsess me, or why I keep thinking about them, or why in a postmodern way I keep trying to recreate them, like Vertigo, for instance. It's just something that's inexplicable. These images have taken seed in your subconscious, and you can't get them the hell out. That's why I think when you make a movie you have to find a way to use that ability that film has to seed the subconscious. There are a few great directors that have been able to do it, and that's why we never forget these movies."

- 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 [1976]). Another is the unbroken tracking shot of remarkable duration (see: Snake Eyes [1998] or The Bonfire of the Vanities [1990]), 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 [1983], The Untouchables [1987], Carlito's Way [1993], Black Dahlia [2006]), war movies (Casualties of War [1987], Redacted [2007]), Hitchcockian-style thrillers (Sisters [1973]), Obsessed [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980], Body Double [1984], Raising Cain [1992]), straight-up horror films (Carrie [1976], The Fury [1978]) 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...

1 comment:

  1. Very cool! I am really looking forward to you delving into De Palma's body of work. I love many of his films, even paycheck movies like THE UNTOUCHABLES and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (the latter of which I plan to examine on my own blog soon). Even his not-so successful films have some redeeming aspects even if it is virtuoso camerawork.

    But you're right about De Palma not getting much respect in the U.S. If you think about it, he was blasted with many of the same criticisms that plague Quentin Tarantino now... he just quotes endlessly from other films. Of course, the big stick that many critics used to beat De Palma with is that he just copies Hitchcock but I have always felt that to be very unfair. I think that there is enough of De Palma's own thematic preoccupations to make his films uniquely his.

    Anyways, I can't wait to start going through his films.