WITH HER R-RATED SHOCKER, DRESSED TO KILL
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
Meanwhile, there have been quite a few podcasts focusing on Dressed To Kill of late. Two more podcasts that popped up this week mention "plot holes" and things like that, but let's face it... although these podasts produce some valuable insights into Dressed To Kill, they are full of "plot holes" of their own-- it can be tough to listen sometimes without wanting to jump in with a bit of info that the participants seem to have missed. At The Unaffiliated Critic, Michael G. McDunnah, who, for context, doesn't like Casualties Of War nor Femme Fatale, chooses to watch and discuss Dressed To Kill with his wife, who is known as "The Unenthusiastic Critic," which is the name of their podcast. It's a fun discussion, as you might imagine.
The "Sordid Cinema Podcast" at Goomba Stomp features some insightful discussion, as long as you don't get too squirmy listening to the two participants talk about how Michael Caine gives a supposedly boring performance, how the whole character of Betty Luce is "unnecessary" and could have been taken out of the script, and also some confusion about exactly where the climactic dream sequence begins (and then listening to one of them talk about how it could have been "fixed" -- when really, it sounds like he just needs to go back and watch it again). As I said, despite these sort of "plot holes" in the podcasts, there are interesting discussions and insights.
"As a fan of De Palma and a trans woman," Crets states, "I’ve always struggled with this film. Over the years, a different portrait of the trans killer Bobbi began to emerge; each new viewing led me to believe there’s more empathy towards her than other critical readings have suggested." Crets feels that while "the film has some pop psychology gobbledygook about two sexes inhabiting the same body," De Palma nevertheless did his research. "Without meaning to, he crafted a story that actually tells us important things about the way trans people were treated in the late ‘70s."
Here's an excerpt from Crets' article:
In his 2015 Daily Beast piece on the Criterion release, writer Keith Phipps quotes trans woman film critic Alice Stoehr as noting, “Elliott’s pathology—‘opposite sexes inhabiting the same body’—bears minimal resemblance to the experiences of actual trans women. Instead, it reads as a conflation of trans identity with dissociative identity disorder. At its most hostile, Dressed To Kill suggests that trans women are dangerous, unstable, and confused. Whereas in Carrie, De Palma found truth by telling his monster’s story, here the monster is incomprehensible and alien.” This was one of the nicer quotes I found about the movie from other trans women, but you get the idea.
As a fan of De Palma and a trans woman, I’ve always struggled with this film. Over the years, a different portrait of the trans killer Bobbi began to emerge; each new viewing led me to believe there’s more empathy towards her than other critical readings have suggested.
The film has some pop psychology gobbledygook about two sexes inhabiting the same body – that both Dr. Elliott and Bobbi, the trans woman, wanted control, and Dr. Elliot barred Bobbi’s transition. Liz asks Bobbi’s gender psychiatrist, Dr. Levy, about this: “You mean when Elliot got turned on, Bobbi took over?” Levy responds, “Yes, it was like Bobbi’s red alert. Elliot’s penis became erect and Bobbi took control, trying to kill anyone that made Elliot masculinely sexual.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was much harder for trans people to be able to transition in America. One would have to fit a very narrow criteria to be approved for the process. The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, long one of America’s primary trans gatekeeping associations, described it this way in 2001:
During the 1960s and 1970s, clinicians used the term true transsexual. The true transsexual was thought to be a person with a characteristic path of atypical gender identity development that predicted an improved life from a treatment sequence that culminated in genital surgery. True transsexuals were thought to have: 1) cross-gender identifications that were consistently expressed behaviorally in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; 2) minimal or no sexual arousal to cross-dressing; and 3) no heterosexual interest, relative to their anatomic sex… Belief in the true transsexual concept for males dissipated when it was realized that such patients were rarely encountered, and that some of the original true transsexuals had falsified their histories to make their stories match the earliest theories about the disorder.
An argument can be made that Dr. Elliott, who would have been familiar with these gatekeeping guidelines, would have found it impossible that he could be trans. Most of his profession would have believed this, which could have caused him to try to squash these desires. In fact, Dr. Elliot represents the psychiatric field’s gatekeeping of trans people for not fitting a very narrow definition, which came from the doctor’s own biases over what makes someone a man or a woman.
Does this make Bobbi the secret hero of Dressed to Kill? Not really, as she is still committing murder. To some extent, she represents the way marginalized communities can sometimes misdirect their anger towards other marginalized communities. It’s the patriarchal field of psychology that has prevented her from transitioning, but she instead focuses on the immediate problem: that when she sees attractive women she becomes aroused and this prevents her from reaching her goal of transition. Rather than blame the problem, she blames a symptom of the problem.
Did De Palma set out to hide all this subtext in Dressed to Kill? Probably not, but there are two things about De Palma that aren’t talked about enough. One is that the man does his research. He certainly did not set out to make a film about trans gatekeeping, but he seems to have done enough research to have been aware of its existence – and that impacted where his film went and how he dealt with the (admittedly loose) psychology in it. Without meaning to, he crafted a story that actually tells us important things about the way trans people were treated in the late ‘70s.
The second point is that De Palma, for all the talk of cruelty that surrounds his filmography, is ultimately an empathetic filmmaker.
Meanwhile, at Daily Dead, you can listen to the latest episode of the Corpse Club podcast, in which "Horror BFFs" Heather Wixson and Patrick Bromley discuss Dressed To Kill. Here's the brief Daily Dead description:
Over the last several years on Daily Dead, we've celebrated the 30th anniversaries of notable horror and sci-fi movies in our "Class of..." retrospective series, and this year we're switching things up by commemorating movies that are celebrating their 40th anniversaries!
Horror BFFs Heather Wixson and Patrick Bromley continue Daily Dead's Class of 1980 retrospective series with a look back at Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill on this episode of Corpse Club!
Listen as Heather and Patrick take a deep dive into the classic horror film, from De Palma's innovative directing and clever camerawork to the film's killer mystery, psychological layers, and intriguing performances by a talented cast including Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Keith Gordon, Nancy Allen, and Dennis Franz.
So, whether you're no stranger to Dressed to Kill or you're gearing up for a first-time viewing, sit back, relax, and enjoy a special Class of 1980 edition of Horror BFFs!
Much more than the mature plot, however, Dressed to Kill’s kaleidoscopic atmosphere – its watery, soft-focus lens, garish colour palette and flashy, optical tricks such as slow-motion, mirrored surfaces, split screens and dioptres – was a feast for my languorous, pre-teen senses. On several occasions, I would wake up to catch the film at its midpoint or nod off before the ending, allowing the collage of images and music to splice into the edges of my sleep. The tense melodies of Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack and the likeness of an androgyne wielding a straight razor would soon become a Proustian madeleine from which countless reveries of my nocturnal childhood would unfold.
De Palma’s mastery of atmosphere was on no greater display than in the film’s early, museum set-piece – a 10-minute, dialogue-free sequence in which the director’s viewfinder glides around Dickinson’s character and through the Met’s galleries and corridors while she pursues, then is pursued, by a potential suitor. As the scene’s tension and pace builds, the labyrinthine interior assumes the contours of a De Chirico painting, or to my child’s eyes, the floating floorplan of a dream. Multiple viewings would reveal another surprise: a split-second cameo of the murderer embedded in the set dressing.
This scene, followed by another silent, slow-burn sequence that culminates in Miller’s grisly death in an elevator, proved to be an exhilarating initiation into the architecture of suspense. The lead character’s abrupt exit from the screen and the subsequent narrative switcheroo to Blake’s story also demonstrated how film could manipulate red herrings and false leads so that, more than mere plot devices, they appeared to me like celluloid apparitions captured in time. While the role reversals of the “good” doctor and “bad” hooker, and the multiple doubles in the film’s climax, hinted at cinema’s intimate bond to secret identities and masquerade.
These lavish visual and rhetorical sleights of hand fed into the richness of cinema’s dream language.
The film’s pleasures were not only abstract. Within the nests of set-pieces and dream sequences, De Palma’s images also produced a montage of New York City at the beginning of the 1980s, a place and an era that I recognised only from a distance. The elegant uptown and slummy downtown, insular high-rise and turbulent subway car, baroque interior and darkened streetscape. These landmarks helped to plot my own imaginary atlas years before I would move to the city as a university film student and discover its very different, millennial landscape.
To a suburban child with an appetite for suspense, De Palma’s masterpiece of urban atmosphere both terrified and enthralled, and inspired in me a lasting passion for genre cinema.
In 2019, Tesfaye went back to his early days, playing the Trilogy-era version of himself in the Safdie brothers’ film Uncut Gems. “I’ve been following the Safdies for years,” he says, a committed cinephile whose current obsessions include Claire Denis’ carnal thriller Trouble Every Day (2001), Brian De Palma’s neo-noir slasher Dressed to Kill (1980), Eckhart Schmidt’s West German, ’80s horror flick Der Fan, and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986).
On the big screen, he plays it douchey, “a kind of almost satirical version of myself,” he says. His fictitious double refuses to sing unless he’s in black light. He performs “The Morning” and does lines with a white girl (Julia Fox) who comments on his erection. “He’s going to be major—even though he’s from Canada,” Julia says earlier in the film. The line is played for laughs.
That “even though” is a bigger deal than it seems. Tesfaye was born to Ethiopian immigrant parents and raised in Scarborough, a region east of downtown Toronto, before he dropped out of high school, moving out to Parkdale in Toronto’s west side. For many of the young, black, brown, and poor people in Canada’s most-populous city, Toronto lacks industry connections of all kinds, affordable housing, and creative infrastructures, especially when compared to cities in the United States. In response to his upbringing, along with La Mar Taylor, Ahmed Ismail, and Joachim Johnson, the Weeknd now runs the nonprofit HXOUSE, a “Toronto-based, globally focused think-center” that works with young artists of many disciplines. Global capital obviously floods Toronto through real estate, technology, and development, but in an exorbitantly expensive rental housing market, the lofts of “Lost Music” are unaffordable. A condo company in Tesfaye’s old neighborhood of Parkdale, a 14-story new development, is eerily called XO Condos. Five-hundred-square-foot boxes, currently unbuilt, are being sold for upwards of $600,000 dollars. XO is, of course, also the name of the Weeknd’s record label, which includes Canadian hip hop acts Nav, Belly, and 88Glam.
Today, ostensibly, he’s made it. "I feel confident with where I’m taking this [new] record,” he reveals. “There’s also a very committed vision and character being portrayed and I get to explore a different side of me that my fans have never seen.” He says that the first drop, the anti-romance song called “Heartless,” follows where My Dear Melancholy left off. “It was the first song I wrote after that album, so it felt fitting for me to put it out,” he says. “I play a character in the video who becomes compromised and then overcompensates with all the sins that Vegas provides. It’s a great introduction to the next chapter of my life.” In the music video for “Heartless,” set in Las Vegas, this new character, with his Lionel Richie mustache, Herbie Hancock glasses, and a slappy grin, was in fact inspired by Sammy Davis, Jr. in the 1973 film Poor Devil. In one scene, he licks a frog. It’s an all-knowing corniness that can be a bit of a one-note gimmick, its arc to be determined by the forthcoming album.
In the final scene of the video for “Blinding Lights,” which premiered in January, this new jittery nouveau-riche character stares into the camera but also beyond it, blood between his teeth. The look is a mix of Joker and Béatrice Dalle in that aforementioned Claire Denis film he loves so much, Trouble Every Day. After a journey through a hall of mirrors, a good high, a good ass-whooping, it’s hard to tell whether he’s laughing or crying. There’s something funny and something tragic in that ambivalence. This sense that we play characters both louche and garish feels like where we are at the turn of this decade, after years when it seemed no one had a self.
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