3RD VOLUME OF 'FAITH & SPIRITUALITY IN MASTERS OF WORLD CINEMA', PUBLISHED NEXT MONTH
Religious Imagery In The Films Of Brian De Palma
(blog post by Ryan M. Holt from February 28, 2014)
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Religious Imagery In The Films Of Brian De Palma
(blog post by Ryan M. Holt from February 28, 2014)
Over the last five decades, the films of director Brian De Palma (b. 1940) have been among the biggest successes (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and the most high-profile failures (The Bonfire of the Vanities) in Hollywood history. De Palma helped launch the careers of such prominent actors as Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Sissy Spacek (who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress in Carrie). Indeed Quentin Tarantino named Blow Out as one of his top three favorite films, praising De Palma as the best living American director. Picketed by feminists protesting its depictions of violence against women, Dressed to Kill helped to create the erotic thriller genre. Scarface, with its over-the-top performance by Al Pacino, remains a cult favorite. In the twenty-first century, De Palma has continued to experiment, incorporating elements from videogames (Femme Fatale), tabloid journalism (The Black Dahlia), YouTube, and Skype (Redacted and Passion) into his latest works. What makes De Palma such a maverick even when he is making Hollywood genre films? Why do his movies often feature megalomaniacs and failed heroes? Is he merely a misogynist and an imitator of Alfred Hitchcock? To answer these questions, author Douglas Keesey takes a biographical approach to De Palma's cinema, showing how De Palma reworks events from his own life into his films. Written in an accessible style, and including a chapter on every one of his films to date, this book is for anyone who wants to know more about De Palma's controversial films or who wants to better understand the man who made them.
"Psycho-Sexual probes De Palma’s early Vietnam War draft-dodger comedies as well as his film Dressed to Kill, along with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Friedkin’s Cruising as reactions to and inventive elaborations upon Hitchcock’s gendered themes and aesthetic approaches. Greven demonstrates how the significant political achievement of these films arises from a deeply disturbing, violent, even sorrowful psychological and social context. Engaging with contemporary theories of pornography while establishing pornography’s emergence during the classical Hollywood era, Greven argues that New Hollywood filmmakers seized upon Hitchcock’s radical decentering of heterosexual male dominance. The resulting images of heterosexual male ambivalence allowed for an investment in same-sex desire; an aura of homophobia became informed by a fascination with the homoerotic. Psycho-Sexual also explores the broader gender crisis and disorganization that permeated the Cold War and New Hollywood eras, reimagining the defining premises of Hitchcock criticism."
Hence, Zinoman argues, De Palma's films are much more invested in autobiographical elements than most (critics and fans alike) have given them credit for, and he points out the irony that De Palma's most confessional film, Home Movies, is hidden as a zany comedy that hardly anyone has seen or even heard of. Zinoman goes so far as to show how De Palma himself relates to the character Kate Miller in Dressed To Kill. While it may be a stretch when Zinoman tries to link to the above De Palma narrative by suggesting that Kate is a character who tries to save herself from a dead-end marriage, he is spot on that Kate goes to the museum and does essentially what De Palma used to do at museums: pick up a member of the opposite sex. Zinoman concludes that, far from the usual misogynistic reading of Kate Miller (who has an adulterous affair and symbolically "pays for it" with her death), De Palma is quite sympathetic to the character. Zinoman stops there, but I would add that by designating Kate's son, Peter (again played by Gordon), as De Palma's obvious surrogate in the film, the sympathy toward Kate is corroborated.
The chapter's main focus is on De Palma's Carrie adaptation, although Zinoman nicely leads up to that film by moving from the aforementioned divorce story, through De Palma's formative college years, and his early film work. Through descriptive passages, Zinoman relates how an experience De Palma had while sitting in the audience at a performance of Dionysus In ‘69, which he was preparing to film in split-screen, led to an idea for the key prom sequence in Carrie. Zinoman also delves into how the film departed from King’s novel, and a volley between Buckley and Irving over which of their characters should survive Carrie’s massacre (throughout filming, it was not known who would be the one to survive).
All in all, a terrific chapter full of new information that fills in some major pieces of the De Palma puzzle. I said that this book is essential to any research on De Palma, and in that respect, I would put it on a shelf along with The Film Director As Superstar by Joseph Gelmis, The Movie Brats by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles, Brian De Palma by Michael Bliss, The De Palma Cut by Laurent Bouzereau, Double De Palma by Susan Dworkin, The Devil’s Candy by Julie Salamon, Brian De Palma: Interviews, edited by Laurence F. Knapp, Brian De Palma, entretiens avec Samuel Blumenfeld and Laurent Vachaud, and Les mille yeux de Brian De Palma by Luc Lagier. There are other great books out there that feature insightful analyses of De Palma’s work, but the books mentioned above include interviews and provide priceless bits of information useful to anyone studying the films of Brian De Palma.
UPDATE: ZINOMAN SOUGHT OUT INTVS WITH THE PEOPLE WHO KNEW THEM BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS
Today (Monday, July 11 2011) Complex posted Matt Barone's interview with Zinoman, who says he wanted to get the stories behind these films that haven't been told before:
The biggest challenge for me, though, was…. There’s a really excellent and dedicated sect of horror press that covers every single one of these movies all the time. There are so many wonderful blogs, and, seeing the response to my book, it’s hard not to be impressed by how smart all these people are. So one of the biggest challenges was: Wes Craven has been interviewed thousands of times, so how do you get him to recreate what it was actually like in the early ’70s to make The Last House On The Left, in a way so that it’s not him repeating the same stories that he’s told over and over again?
So, my goal with this book was to root it in reporting. There are definitely criticisms in it, and I have a strong point-of-view, but I wanted to really tell a story. I wanted it to read like a narrative, with these horror directors and writers as the main characters. and I wanted it to be rooted in original reporting. I found that spending long periods of time interviewing them was very helpful. Talking to a lot of people who don’t usually get interviewed was also key, like supporting actors, family members, people who went to school with these directors, childhood friends.
I tried to really look at sources from back in that time; I didn’t want to talk to people who are higher-level fans or made movies starting in the ’90s or later. I looked at it more as, “Who knew Brian De Palma before he was famous? Who went to college with him?”; Wes Craven’s wife from back before he made The Last House On The Left. Those people I found were excellent sources; they had firsthand knowledge of what was going on, that wasn’t informed by the fact that they’ve been telling the same stories for thirty years. Often times, I got a fresher perspective talking to those people, and once I talked to those people I went back to Craven and De Palma, joggled their memories with the stories I’d heard, and then I got all-new memories from these filmmakers.
The choice fell on Brian De Palma, because, besides being a leading exponent of the new Hollywood, from the outset he has pursued a continuous research and reflection on the image and forms of narrative genres, far from being exhausted themselves. He is a real investigator who has represented and continues to represent a model of artistic coherence, even when dealing with commercial films. Aware that we will not be neither the first nor the last to study the auteur of "Scarface," "Carlito's Way" and "Carrie" Spanu and I think that De Palma as a director is always "forward" and "young." So, because of this, there will never be enough written about him in subsequent years, I'm sure.
WONDERS WHY "MASTERPIECE" LIKE REDACTED WAS NEVER RELEASED IN ITALY, DESPITE WINNING AT VENICE
I moreover confess that I’d like to stir the consciences of those who have not distributed into the country a masterpiece like "Redacted" that, after winning the Venice Film Festival, was visible only on satellite TV. We'll see!
Asked why they chose Coppola for the second volume, Zanello replied:
Some of the adjectives that I spent on De Palma may also be applied to Francis Ford Coppola. As a notation I would add: bold and reckless. Only he could sign a formal masterpiece of elegance such as "Dracula", after the many film versions of the myth, and producers who taunted him for his idea to bring Bram Stoker’s creature to the screen, before the proliferation of vampire movies in recent years. Other movies like "The Conversation" and "One from the Heart" have foreshadowed issues such as wire tapping and high definition. Today everybody worships these films as they rightly deserve, yet at the time they were notorious flops at the box office. Coppola, therefore, provides another congenital ground on which to develop a 360-degree analysis.
ESSAY SEEKS TO "REHABILITATE" DE PALMA'S MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE
Carlo Griseri posted on his blog today that he had the "privilege/burden" of writing the essay on Mission: Impossible, an image from which graces the sublime cover to The Writing Of The Gaze. Griseri's essay attempts to "rehabilitate" De Palma's film which, according to Griseri, is unanimously considered one of De Palma's minor works, and is "discreetly snubbed by purists and critics." All this despite French critic Luc Lagier's book-length study on De Palma's Mission: Impossible.
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