Sunday, November 13, 2011
Mister De Palma
Is Brian De Palma the genuine article? As a huge devotee of Hitchcock's and a glutton for the thriller genre in general: I have asked myself this question on more than one occasion. I love movies and if you love movies as much as I do, you will understand when I say that the question of De Palma's legitimacy as a 'major filmmaker' has (at times) consumed me as profoundly as Einstein must have been consumed by his theory of relativity. Trying to reconcile warring personal views on a controversial figure like Brian De Palma can be a remarkably frustrating exercise marked by late-night screenings and reassessments, the deepest kind of soul searching and occasional negotiation with one's own values. Having grown up watching and studying the films of Hitchcock for example: I had always admired his restraint in the treatment of violence and sexuality. In my view Hitchcock's restraint was representative of the class and good judgment that set him apart from the modern breed of filmmakers who throw everything up on the screen (among whom De Palma is one of cinema's most "arch" perpetrators). On the other hand, a late Hitchcock retrospective reveals good old Hitch pushing boundaries of decorum like never before with the graphic sexual violence of Frenzy and the baroque excess of Family Plot, which reads almost like a queasy self-reflexive spoof of his earlier work. Given the liberty, it seems that even the master was not beyond indulgences of a more reckless nature. I use this of course to rationalize some of De Palma's more infamous sequences in which a chainsaw, a straight razor and yes, even a power drill are used in ways that Black & Decker likely never imagined.
Amidst the changing tides of taste, and a movie audience that seems to demand more extreme thrills with each passing year, was it inevitable that De Palma would become the heir apparent to Hitchcock's legacy? If Hitchcock had lived another twenty years, would we have found him competing with or even borrowing from De Palma to deliver against audience expectations? This much is clear: just as Hitchcock defined the thriller genre by refining its themes and techniques, De Palma has done more to bring prominence to the genre in the ensuing years than any other mainstream director. In his interview with Marcia Pally in Film Comment circa 1984, he was unapologetic about his methods. "The content of my films is a secondary issue...I don't start with an idea about content. I start with a VISUAL IMAGE." Eight years later, his viewpoint hadn't changed, but there was a sense that De Palma had grown more indignant of his critics. "I could take a script out and photograph it and I can be called a director," he rhapsodized to Peter Keough of Sight and Sound, "the story's all there, they walk in the door, they sit down, then they get in the car and there's a car chase. But to me, that's not directing, it's being asleep at the switch."
Add to this attitude the fact that the thriller genre seems to invite the hyper-stylized visual flourishes of a De Palma like no other genre and we begin to grasp a complete picture of the man. There is scarcely a thriller that doesn't represent a 'heightened reality' by amplifying one of the following: the intrusion of violence into every day life, the effort to conceal hidden truths, the duplicity of heroes and villains and other such familiar tropes and yet the appeal of these themes when handled smartly is virtually inexhaustible. Thrillers remain one of cinema's most popular international currencies and it is surely no coincidence that Hitchcock and his thrillers made him the most popular filmmaker of his generation. So, what does this tell us about the less popular De Palma being the genuine article? My hope is that we can start by agreeing on these points:
(1) Restraint in and of itself has no greater intrinsic artistic value than excess, provided it has a purpose -- although some would argue for a narrower view of restraint as the only technique that heralds ambiguity and truth in art.
(2) If it is artistically valid and even preferable for form to reflect content in a film, the thriller genre would seem to validate the giddy operatic excess of a filmmaker like De Palma.
The question that remains has dogged him for most of his career. Does Brian De Palma have an authentic point-of-view or is he little more than a derivative knock-off artist? I believe that De Palma is trying to do more than simply re-think and pay homage to existing cinematic material. I also agree with his claim that there is a cinematic language (developed by Hitchcock) which makes sense for storytellers; particularly in the thriller genre. Seen through this lens, it isn't so much a question of what the director is doing but how he/she is doing it. Is he/she using the devices of cinema appropriately and authentically? In the case of Brian De Palma, I believe the answer is yes.
Admittedly, this is a more academic discussion than I typically choose to entertain on my blog. I can't help feeling ambivalent about admitting that I take movies as seriously as I do. I know that it's much hipper to feign irony and cool detachment, but I'm willing to confess that I believe De Palma embodies what the French would call an artiste. There, I finally said it. More than almost any other modern mainstream filmmaker, De Palma has been criticized for his methods and he has balked at his detractors by continuing to practice in much the same fashion. Rather than silence his critics, his success has only incited a deeper level of scrutiny.
Nevertheless, his maverick aesthetic, his painstaking re-working of classical cinematic themes and his propensity to go over the top posits a world in which anything can happen. Even when you recognize the language being used, De Palma is capable of shaking you up because he's willing to break all the rules. With movies like: Sisters, Carrie, Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War and Carlito's Way, De Palma digests the tropes of classic film storytelling and re-engineers them to make an overt and deliberate comment on the way we watch movies. Why else would the man repeatedly employ devices like split-diopter cinematography and split screen editing, if not to focus our attention on the way we watch his films? His use of fluid crane shots, slow motion and steadicam, his stubborn insistence on a dizzying camera spiraling around two figures (often dancing), and his tightly edited montages (usually triggered by an outbreak of violence) are just further examples of a style that is both immersive and distancing.
I believe De Palma's body of work is more than mere homage. It is also an attempt to test how far audiences are willing to be sucked into a film while still aware that they are watching something manufactured. De Palma himself has been vocal about this creative strategy since the beginning of his career, as evidenced by comments he provided in a 1973 interview in Filmmakers Newsletter, where he told Richard Rubenstein: "I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are watching a film....There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved in it." These contradictory intentions are what lends a De Palma film such palpable tension. The world of his films is both visceral and self-reflexive. His post-modern sensibility lies at the height of his fascination and it accounts for the misguided rancor he's incurred from the critics for "borrowing" so liberally from the old masters. But before you accuse me of going off the rails, let me just say that I recognize there are holes in the argument. Although De Palma's films embody a virtuosic command of cinematic craft, his stories often shun conventional logic and at times eschew narrative coherence altogether. It is difficult to determine if this is laziness on his part, or merely part of his experiment to test what audiences are willing to accept.
If his sometimes laughable plots are in fact conceived as cinematic jokes by the self-proclaimed "gallows humorist," I find it is easier to subscribe to the theory of the man as a surrealist genius. It is a fact that he uses the 'film-within-a-film' motif throughout his body of work. In Hi Mom it appears as the faux-documentary sequence. In Sisters it is both a fictional game show and a shocking newsreel detailing the tragic life of two siamese twins. In Blow Out it is the slasher film spoof that opens the movie and the flip-book of images that Travolta matches to his sound recording. In Body Double it is the staged porn footage -- a satiric retort conceived to dispute the theory that De Palma himself was a purveyor of smut. The most current example is Redacted an entire film in which the manner with which it is made calls into question conventional notions of reality. Sometimes the result is so over-the-top that it's hard to know whether De Palma is in on the joke, but an examination of his anarchic early films demonstrates an outrageous counter-culture sensibility that bears resemblance to his modern period not by way of genre but of risk taking.
De Palma's use of meta-fiction in his films is so consistent that it can be seen as a key to his unique working method. His "meta" approach to telling stories affords him incredible latitude with respect to credibility, allowing him to tow the line between dream and reality -- a distinction he seems to relish playing with, given the number of dream sequences in his films (Carrie, Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Femme Fatale, etc). His use of the film-within-a-film and the dream sequence forces us to accept the events 'outside the dream' as truth, even if that truth is absurdly lurid or melodramatic. We are compelled, even as we laugh at the dream logic of his plot or his overcooked visuals. His protagonists complete the effect by embodying the themes that fascinate him. In most cases De Palma's leads are either voyeurs who are forcibly transformed into participants (Irving in Carrie, Travolta in Blow Out, Wasson in Body Double, Allen in Dressed To Kill, Fox in Casualties of War, Banderas in Femme Fatale) or individuals at odds with their own public image (Pacino in both Scarface and Carlito's Way, Cruise in Mission Impossible, etc). Always the protagonist is forced to enter a world that he/she was once outside of as a spectator, only to find their worst fears realized.
Many of the early objections to De Palma were propagated by moralists who failed to correctly identify his position on his own films. The prevalence of freudian and feminist film theory painted a picture of De Palma the sadist and misogynist which is now ludicrous after witnessing his four decades in pictures, but still clings to him like freshly dried linens. Although the stigma still haunts him today, De Palma has become (like Hitchcock before him) a model of taste compared to current trend-setters such as Eli Roth (Hostel) or Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects). After all, even his most seemingly gruesome scenes cut away from the action at the crucial moment, leaving the results to our collective imagination. I don't know if any of this will have any impact on you or the way you view the man, but hopefully it will at least get you thinking. There are many ways to look at a film and De Palma has made a career of exploiting these distinctions. Is he the genuine article? I say yes. Now, if you'll excuse me I need to go find a padded room to thrash around in after the public embarrassment of taking his side in the debate.