"I'M A GREAT STUDENT OF DIRECTORS' CAREERS"
Brian De Palma was interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival by The Hot Button's David Poland...
(Courtesy of Go Into The Story's Scott Myers.)
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(Courtesy of Go Into The Story's Scott Myers.)
"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.'”
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:
"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?"
Jamey Duvall: A couple of questions. I mean, gosh, I’m so excited, we have another De Palma thriller. And I think it’s the first one since Raising Cain, isn’t it? Or Femme Fatale. So it’s been ten years or so since he’s worked in this genre. So when you see it begin, and it’s clearly De Palma-esque, as we all know and love, and you see Pino’s name and that romantic, lush score, I can imagine it is, does it feel like you’re in a time vault, in a way? As a De Palma fan?
Dean: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is an absolute eighties, I would say a mid-eighties throwback. It absolutely feels like you’re watching this on Cinemax late at night. It’s got slinky saxophone on the score, you know, and everything is sort of steely and glassy in it, you know. And there’s times where you’re confused about space and about time. And that’s also, you know, a De Palma sort of mainstay for his thrillers. It’s really… I don’t want to oversell it, because, you know, I have to confess I like Femme Fatale a little bit more. Or some of his classics. But I would definitely put it up there with something like Dressed To Kill. I mean, it was fun.
De Palma discusses how the actresses improvised a lot, and then Thompson asks about that drawer glimpsed in the film's teaser trailer (see image above). "That drawer was created by Cornelia Ott, the production designer," De Palma tells Thompson. "And believe me, she had other things for that drawer that I said, 'I think that's a little too much.' But she carefully arranged all those things in that drawer, and she said 'What do you think?' And I said, 'Yikes! Okay!' I love the way Noomi picks these things up,'Holy mackerel, what is that?'"
Thompson asks, "So you didn't intend in the writing for that dynamic to exist?" And De Palma responds, "Well, it was important about the mask, we had to establish the mask. But all the toys that they use, you gotta hand that to Cornelia."
Also discussed is the film's play with reality and dreams. De Palma tells Thompson, "Well, because I get a lot of ideas when I wake up in the middle of the night, just like Noomi does in the beginning of the movie, the whole movie's filled with actions like that. She's constantly waking up and not sure exactly [whether] what came before was a dream or wasn't a dream. And Noomi's playing a clever con game with the audience all the time, because you believe that she is an innocent person, she didn't know what she was doing. 'The drugs made me crazy,' and you buy it."
Thompson notes that the Pino Donaggio score shifts directions throughout the film, beginning with a comedic tone. "Yeah," says De Palma. "Nobody writes those psycho dream things like Pino does, and there's a long section of Noomi's nightmare that has big surprises in it, and he's just the master of that. I mean, we did it in Carrie, we did it in Dressed to Kill, we did it in Raising Cain. And then there's the other music that's very lyrical, especially when Noomi's falling apart, but it's very touching."
'PASSION' SHOT ON FILM WITH ONE CAMERA, AND ONE BIG STEADICAM SHOT
The discussion then turned to shooting Passion on film as opposed to video:
BDP: Well, we had one camera, and we shot on film.
AT: You shot in 35mm? Wow. Nobody does that anymore.
BDP: That's correct. The problem is that they only make digital things from it, and a lot of movies are released digitally.
AT: Are you decrying the death of 35?
BDP: Of course I am, but when we find a cheaper way to put it in the theaters, they're going to do it that way. Plus, we have the big problem with everybody looking at things on smaller screens. You could be in your bed with your iPad watching "Lawrence of Arabia," that's the problem.
AT: So how did you move the Steadicam around in this movie?
BDP: Well, there's only one really big Steadicam shot and that's when Noomi has her breakdown. And I wanted to give her the emotional length to be able to play the emotion, all the way up from coming down the hallway, into the elevator, into the garage.
AT: Now how many takes do you usually do? What would be your average?
BDP: Not a lot, we don't do a lot of takes. We usually tried different things that the girls would try to do, but after I got it I'd sort of look at them and ask, "Is there anything else you want to do?" And they'd either say yes or no, depending on how they felt about the scene.
"And this, some will intuit, is in the service of saying something about The Way We Live Now. In a way the real world has caught up with a vision that De Palma has always been putting forward, one that he and his fellow movie brats intuited from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom perhaps: that we are always looking, and we are always looking not at what is, or more to the point, ought to be, in front of us, but at something we're putting in front of us, some screen containing some contrivance of what we would like to think is our desire. This vision has become, for De Palma, so distilled (some would say rarified) that his best work of the past twenty years or maybe even more (hey, I really LIKE Femme Fatale!) has almost everything to do with that idea and nothing to do with the way actual human beings behave or speak. So the ridiculously flat dialogue and almost pantomime performance styles on display in Passion will not come as any surprise to a longtime De Palma watcher, although they are likely to elicit some sort of 'That was stupid' reflex in non-adepts. No matter—does this thing even have a U.S. distributor yet? In any event, in adapting the tonally straightforward but full-of-myriad-plot-twists 2010 Alain Corneau thriller Love Crime (a far more conventional picture than his still brain-melting 1979 Serie Noire, the seediest of Jim Thompson adaptations, and that's really saying something), De Palma insists of course on reconfiguring it into a movie not about the duplicity of cinematic subjectivity and then cranking the volume of that subjectivity up to eleven once a strong prescription sleep aid enters the scenario of ruthless corporate one-upswomanship.
"[I]t's a hoot, all right, but it isn't quite Radley Metzger, which is to say in a sense that it isn't quite Brian De Palma either. It doesn't have enough sex, is the thing. At 72 hardly an enfant terrible any longer, De Palma is nonetheless palpably constrained. American female stars of the bankability caliber necessary to obtain foreign funding (if I read my credits correctly there's not one American dollar in this movie, so to speak) simply won't do the kind of thngs De Palma leading ladies of the '80s had little if any trouble with. Hence, the ostensible sapphic tensions between the characters played by Rachel McAdams (American Canadian [see comments], appears in her underwear) and Noomi Rapace (European, appears topless) don't really get all that much traction and the most explicit stuff here is in the reveal of sex toys. Being an old master doesn't cut certain kinds of ice these days, I guess. I almost feel sorry for the guy."
"Such a relationship to the exposure of reality is essential, because so much of Passion is about the deception of real life performance. Christine and Isabelle duel and spar around promotions, boyfriends (both are cheating, but it seems also on each other), and their own disdain for each other ('it’s not backstabbing' is a repeated quip). De Palma never gives us the inner exposure of his two women, they play around with clothes and make up. Isabelle always dresses in pure black, and when Christine adds on red shoes and lipstick, it’s an intrusion onto the body. Meanwhile, Christine goes for the garish and big—Hitchcock reds and blues (a cross that could also double as a dagger dangling from her neck and three watches hanging on her wrist), and in one scene, she sits on her couch garmented in a golden satin robe and black lingerie, spread out like a queen, or at least demanding to be one.
"As Passion proceeds the frames become more expressive and more subjective, switching at one point to almost five minutes straight of subjective point of view shots. But again, what can we trust in the world of performance? De Palma flurries his camera through the action—push ins, zooms, and in the film’s central piece, a brilliant split screen use that only reveals its true revelations at the end as it plays with again our vision of watching. And while he leads us down one road—the cinematic frames suggest one answer, the truth once again lies in the recorded image. Like The Black Dahlia, the most real thing on screen is that which we see though screens."