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a la Mod:
As someone who primarily knew John Lithgow as the lovable goofball dad in the 1987 family film Harry and the Hendersons, seeing his face on the VHS of Raising Cain in the video store was a shock. Lithgow’s face is slightly angled and tilted down, his eyes looking up from a shadowed face torn down the middle with one side blackened, only the eyes and mouth an electric white like an eerie photo negative.
It’s a jarring image made more dangerous on the poster by two people in a passionate embrace below Lithgow’s frightening image, giving the feeling that these two lovers are in for a world of trouble. The wonderfully cheeky tagline above the two lovers explains the tear dividing Lithgow’s face: “When Jenny cheated on her husband, he didn’t just leave… He split.”
Pulpy psycho-thrillers were how Brian De Palma made a name for himself as a filmmaker, but he also had mainstream Hollywood success with The Untouchables (1987) and would hit big in 1996 with Mission: Impossible starring the biggest star on the planet, Tom Cruise. In 1991, De Palma was coming off The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history, and searching for his next project. Perhaps looking to right the ship, De Palma returned to familiar ground with a film in the suspense/thriller genre, the director’s first since 1984’s Body Double.
De Palma had an idea from years before when a friend who was a child psychologist took time off from his practice in order to observe the development of his own child full time. This friend planned to write a book about his experience and observations. And while De Palma found this to be strange, he began thinking about the situation from the angle of a mystery/thriller movie.
He started to craft a story in his head about Dr. Carter Nix and his wife Jenny, an oncologist who worries about the fascination her husband has with their daughter Amy, unaware of what is really going on inside his head. De Palma titled the movie Raising Cain.
"I also like how Brian DePalma reverses certain codes: normally, a rebound would have revealed that a certain character was actually fictional, a hallucination of the main protagonist; here, the twist is to prove the existence of this character...#Raising Cain is a very personal film for DePalma, which directly evokes elements of his own journey (the adultery of a parent experienced as traumatic life event, his father doctor ...)."
"Brian De Palma’s movies aren’t about sense, they’re about emotions," Ludovici states early on. "His movies are visually opulent and voyeuristic, they’re about watching people do things, and what they do is betray one another. From his personal passion projects to his massive studio blockbusters the issue of trust and how it’s impossible appears again and again."
Looking at the original theatrical version of Raising Cain, Radcliffe states, "It’s rare to find a movie that would benefit from being longer, but Raising Cain could have used another twenty or even thirty minutes. It’s edited down to within an inch of its life so that the entire plot confusingly feels like it takes place on the same day. Key elements are explained rather than shown, and the characters are thinly drawn, verging on stereotypes — the wisecracking cops, the concerned best friend, the handsome love interest, the German-accented psychiatrist. Jenny is an aggressively off-putting 'heroine,' and all we really know about her is that she’s a doctor who had an affair with a dying patient’s husband, kissing him right in the hospital room. We don’t even really know much about Carter, other than he has multiple personalities, and is hyper-focused on his young daughter, in a way that could be unhealthy, but who can say for sure, because it’s never explored."
"MOSTLY JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT," SHE SAYS
Radcliffe later continues:
Still, it can’t be emphasized enough that John Lithgow makes a feast of his roles, playing sinister, sympathetic, campy, and compelling all at the same time. The scenes when Carter’s "twin” Cain mocks him are both funny and tragic, in a “Gollum looking at himself in the water” way. De Palma’s love of Hitchcock-style imagery serves this movie particularly well, a good reminder that you’re not watching anything that’s supposed to be a realistic depiction of DID. Raising Cain isn’t a bad movie, it’s just confounding, an interesting premise that needed more structure, and more fleshing out.
And, as it turns out, there’s a twist in the making of the movie itself.
The strange pacing and editing were a last-minute decision for De Palma after the original cut tested poorly with audiences. Why anyone thought that a psychological thriller would work better if it was harder to follow is unknown, but that’s how it was released, much to De Palma’s regret. Twenty years after Raising Cain was released, a filmmaker from the Netherlands, mostly just for the hell of it, recut the film so that it more closely resembled the original script. Nothing was added or taken away, scenes were merely moved around so that the plot was somewhat more linear. The recut got back to De Palma, who was so pleased with it that he petitioned to have it added to the 2016 Blu-Ray release, claiming that it was the way the movie was always meant to be seen.
In the interest of good journalism (and because I had to see if it really did improve whatever the hell is supposed to be happening), I watched the recut, and you know what? It actually works pretty well. It opens with Jenny reconnecting with Jack, and her bizarre excitement over the prospect of cheating on her husband, which is reminiscent of Dressed to Kill, though she doesn’t pay for it in quite so gruesome a fashion as Angie Dickinson does in the earlier movie. The gauzily lit, soap operatic “lovers reunited” plot ends with a flashback of Jack’s terminally ill wife seeing them kiss and literally dying instantly, providing a delightfully effective bridge from romantic melodrama to psychological thriller.
After about the 45-minute mark, the “director’s cut” more or less follows the theatrical cut. While the movie still, in the end, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it no longer quite feels like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without a life preserver. Not having to focus so much on trying to figure out what’s happening (it’s safe to assume that probably about 45% of it is only occurring in Carter’s fractured mind) allows plenty of opportunity to really see just how great John Lithgow is. He’s not just sad and a little scary, he’s hilarious, abruptly changing his facial expressions from “evil” to “innocent” in some scenes like he’s a human Looney Tunes character. It’s obviously an intentional choice, and even better when compared to how straight all the other actors play their roles. Lithgow is at his best when playing perhaps the most dangerous personality, “Margo,” who says nothing, smiles sweetly, and headbutts old ladies; regrettably she doesn’t show up until the last fifteen minutes of the movie. If Raising Cain still feels too short, it’s simply because we don’t get enough of Lithgow taking a potentially touchy subject matter and brilliantly, gleefully, riding it into camp oblivion.
There’s a war raging inside of Brian De Palma. As a child he won a regional science fair by building his own computer, he went to college to study physics before being seduced by filmmaking. His best films and sequences have an almost clockwork construction, they’re known for their long uninterrupted takes that suggest fascination but also distance. His movies are often simultaneously horrific and clinical in a way that suggest a bloodless, pitiless scientist running rats through a lethal maze.
But that intelligent, scientifically minded child had a chaotic home. His father (a respected Philadelphia doctor) was a serial adulterer and the young De Palma followed him around and photograph him with various women, he even created a time-lapse camera so that he could stake various locations out without being there. Once, he threatened his father with a knife after ambushing him and one of his conquests at his office.
That tension between the thoughtful intellectual and the furious adolescent is the fuel that makes De Palma’s work go. And it changes the purpose of detached distance that he also seems to take from his subjects too. Maybe he doesn’t hold his subjects at arm’s length because he doesn’t care about what happens to them; maybe it’s because he doesn’t trust what he would do if he got too close.
At their core, his DID movies are about how, at the end of the day, we also can’t really trust ourselves. We might think we’re better and more knowledgeable than the people around us, but we’re not even safe from ourselves. There are no safe places in Brian De Palma’s world – not even inside our own minds.
Visit Peet Gelderblom at Directorama.net
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