LIKE 'REDACTED', 'PASSION' IS CONCERNED WITH CYBER RECORDING, DIGITAL DUPLICITY, & NEW TYPES OF CINEMA
J. Hoberman posted about Brian De Palma's Passion on his Blouin ArtInfo blog today, ahead of the start of the New York Film Festival this Friday. Hoberman calls Passion "sleek, slick, humorously kinky," and suggested that the film continues the play with cinematic forms De Palma displayed in his previous film, Redacted. Hoberman also takes a look at Chris Dumas' book, Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible, and finds that Passion is a good example of Dumas' conception of De Palma as "a sort of intuitive film theorist who, like Peckinpah and Coppola before him, has reached a place where he can only make movies that are allegories for making movies." Here's how Hoberman lays it out:
"A German-produced, English-language remake of the late Alain Corneau’s last feature Crime d’amour, a bit of boardroom intrigue released here last September as Love Crime, Passion has a prime spot on the festival’s first Saturday night (and is showing twice more after that). As in the Corneau film, it’s predicated on a battle royale between two cool chicks—in this case, advertising hotshot Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her protégée Isabelle (Noomi Rapace). McAdams makes a most excellent bad girl—in part because, as his wont, De Palma elicits some truly 'bad' acting.
"The promise of AC-DC workplace romantic triangle is only one of Passion’s deceptive attractions. Basically, De Palma’s movie is a playful, shamelessly manipulative movie about shameless manipulation—not least of cinematic forms. Like Redacted, Passion concerned with cyber recording and digital duplicity and, also like Redacted, new types of cinema—including sex tapes, Skype conversations, and an 'ass-cam' you stick in your back pocket to monitor who’s checking you out. It’s also showboat film-making, full of expressionist angles, baroque lighting, nested narratives, and inconsequential film school references (not just to Vertigo but De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill).
"De Palma may be an inveterate trickster but his compulsion to extra-textualize Corneau’s original is both a way of taking ownership of the material and a form of free-association less rigorous than, but not unlike, Raymond Roussel’s method for composing his surreal novels. Thus, Passion’s split screen set piece, involves both a slyly seductive performance of the ballet Afternoon of a Faun and an obscurely unfolding criminal plan, mainly because both (as will only later be clear) hinge upon stolen scarfs.
"It was while in Toronto, browsing the well-stocked bookstore at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre, that I discovered Chris Dumas’s high-powered, witty, and provocatively (as well as suitably) disreputable Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible. Dumas, who writes like a PhD student who wise-guyed himself out of film school, Dumas clearly identifies with his subject. By his logic, it was precisely because De Palma — a cineaste of the ’60s and thus contemporary to the whole Cinema Studies enterprise — took it upon himself to rewrite, or travesty, the two Cinema Studies deities Hitchcock and Godard, that his oeuvre has found so little academic support. (In that sense, Un-American Psycho is something like the return of the Cinema Studies 'repressed.')
"Dumas’s De Palma is a sort of intuitive film theorist who, like Peckinpah and Coppola before him, has reached a place where he can only make movies that are allegories for making movies. Blatantly global, predicated on theft and betrayal (as well as plots and image-making), Passion is a case in point.
"In the best of all possible worlds, De Palma would only direct remakes and all remakes would be directed by him. Still, it is strange that this one has yet to find a US distributor. Can an openly commercial mocksploitation film possibly be too cerebral? As Oscar Wilde observed, 'There is always something ridiculous about the passions of people whom one has ceased to love.'”
MORE ON THE DUMAS BOOK
Meanwhile, someone who is not so impressed with Dumas' book is Adrian Martin, who, in a review posted in the current edition of Screening The Past, states that the book "is full of sloppy, careless mistakes," and "poorly constructed as an argument." For examples of the mistakes, Martin writes, "The bibliography lists Tony Conrad as the author of The Hitchcock Murders – Tony Conrad, the 'underground' filmmaker, wow! Alas, it’s really that old fogey, Peter Conrad. In a chapter devoted to Godard, James Roy MacBean is described as a once-regular contributor to Film Comment – ah, that would be Film Quarterly. Godard’s films Numéro Deux and Ici et Ailleurs are dated as 'early 1970s' – they are 1975 and 1976, respectively. And on and on it goes."
Dumas responds: "As a longtime fan of the music of Tony Conrad, I am truly ashamed to have carelessly cited him as the author of Peter Conrad's dreadful The Hitchcock Murders. I hope Tony can forgive me. -- Chris Dumas"
Another error in the book involves De Palma's Obsession, which Dumas describes as one of De Palma's works for hire ("he neither originated the project nor wrote the script"). Of course, De Palma did originate the project, and in fact Paul Schrader's screenplay is based on a story by Schrader and De Palma. When I asked Dumas about this, he said someone else had told him the same thing, and acknowledged that the error left a hole in the book's thesis that he hopes to retrospectively correct with a potential presentation in the near future. One of Martin's biggest problems with Dumas' book is the dismissal of Obsession, "in my opinion one of De Palma’s greatest and most powerful works," states Martin. Referring to the book's title (which itself reflects Dumas' thesis that Film Studies cannot "see" De Palma because his cinema is exactly what Film Studies strives to be), Martin adds, "Talk about a blind spot!"
For myself, despite the mistakes, Dumas' book provides a unique view of De Palma that correctly identifies Godard as the basis from which to understand De Palma's continued "use" of Hitchcock (or, to paraphrase Dumas, De Palma's developed operation of the Hitchcock machine, which Dumas states is understood "as the sum of Hitchcock's appropriable narrative and technical gestures"). Dumas analyzes the way the Godardian, political De Palma turned toward Hitchcock's grammar as a way to develop his own filmmaking skills. "De Palma, therefore," states Dumas, "becomes not a 'Hitchcockian' - the way that, say, M. Night Shyamalan has become a 'Hitchcockian' - but, rather, takes on the operation of the Hitchcock machine as un Godardiste." In this vein, Dumas further posits the idea of De Palma as film theorist, and at one point suggests that Raising Cain might also have been called "Some Thoughts on Hitchcock's Authorship." Martin himself admits that he can "see some small truth" in Dumas' thesis, but feels that Dumas is prone to overstatement.
The book also includes well-selected and juxtaposed stills, mostly from De Palma films, but also some other directors here and there. (Martin himself finds the series of stills featuring faces returning the camera's gaze, such as the still of William Finley that graces the book's cover, the book's highlight.) I also appreciate a book such as this for those instances in which it brings to light a reference in a De Palma film that I may never have thought to look at otherwise, such as when Dumas notes the influence of Anthony Mann on De Palma's The Untouchables and Femme Fatale (Dumas suggests that the latter's "supremely illogical dream structure" is "clearly borrowed from Strange Impersonation," a claim I have yet to investigate for myself).
A.V. Club's John Semley also appreciates the book's close readings of De Palma's films, stating it is one of the "great strengths of Dumas' theorizing."
ZIZEK ON 'REDACTED'
One other note of interest regarding Dumas' book: Slavoj ìzek is presented as "un Lacaniste" who makes the mistake of operating the Hitchcock machine while ignoring De Palma, who, as a theorist in his own right, entered Hitchcock studies prior to ìzek. Prior to the completion of Dumas' manuscript, iz̀ek had never once seemed to have mentioned or written about De Palma. However, in his latest book, Living In The End Times (2010), iz̀ek spends a paragraph with De Palma's Redacted, in the context of a discussion of U.S. military interventions around the globe. Below is that paragraph and, for context, parts of the ones that surround it on pages 174-175:
"Can we still conceive of heroism as the simple attitude of risking-it-all for our (democratic) Cause? This brings us to the final feature: what exactly is the conflict in which the U.S. is heroically ready to participate, in defense of the weak 'postmodern' states? The struggle against a conglomerate of religious fundamentalists and corrupt dictators? Is this the true struggle? When Madeleine Albright defined the US as 'the indispensable nation which doesn't need any counterbalance, because it balances itself, she was being truly fatuous: this self-aggrandizing Hegelian-sounding definition is simply wrong-- the US is precisely not able to balance itself, for it has to be reminded of its limitations again and again by some external counter-force.
"No wonder that Brian De Palma's Redacted was boycotted by the US public: it portrays rape and murder as part of the US army's obscene subculture, a form of 'group solidarity' in collective transgression. The supreme irony is that the gang rape incident which the film stages happened in the summer of 2006 in Samara-- and the film makes a reference to the 'Appointment in Samara' story, nicely left half untold. This legend was retold by W. Somerset Maugham: a servent on an errand in the busy market of Baghdad meets Death; terrified by its gaze, he runs home to his master and asks for a horse, so that he can ride all day and reach Samara, where Death will not find him, in the evening. The good master not only provides the servent with a horse, but goes to the market himself, looking for Death to reproach it for scaring his faithful servant. Death replies: 'But I didn't want to scare your servant. I was just surprised at what was he doing here when I have an appointment in Samara tonight...' What if the message of this story is not that a man's demise is impossible to avoid, that trying to twist free of it will only tighten its grip, but rather the exact opposite, namely that if one accepts fate as inevitable then one can break its grasp?
"It was foretold to Oedipus's parents that their son would kill his father and marry his mother, but the very steps they took to avoid this fate (exposing him to death in a deep forest) ensured that the prophecy would be fulfilled-- without their attempt to avoid fate, fate could not have realized itself. Is this not a clear parable of the fate of the US intervention in Iraq? The US saw the signs of the fundamentalist threat, intervened to prevent it, and thereby massively strengthened it. Would it not have been much more effective to accept the threat, ignore it, and thus break its grasp?"
Incidentally, iz̀ek himself makes a mistake in stating that the incident that Redacted is based on actually took place in Samara (it actually happened in Al-Mahmudiyah-- De Palma's film begins with a clever bit of wordplay, deemed necessary by the studio to avoid lawsuits, that probably threw ìzek off: "redacted visually documents imagined events before, during and after a 2006 rape and murder in Samara").