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a la Mod:
De Palma’s earliest films were less precise, and sometimes more revealing: They don’t disguise his fixations as genre. The mercurial black comedy Hi Mom! trails like a disorderly kid after Jean-Luc Godard, through whom De Palma arrived at Brechtian ideas of estrangement — telling a story while displaying the artifice involved, so that viewers might act upon the fiction rather than just receiving it. A woman testing out a movie camera zooms in on the salesman, bearing the device to bare the device: “You twist this like so, and your subject will come closer and closer and closer…” An antic young Robert De Niro stars as Jon Rubin, who films neighbours fucking and tries to contrive porn spying on himself — then as now, the wrong angles will ruin your nude. Later he rehearses the cop’s role for a militant theater troupe, clanging his baton against a ladder with unnerving enthusiasm: “What are you protesting? Let me see your permit. You don’t need a permit?” (During the early 1960s De Palma was shot in the leg by New York police, albeit while drunkenly stealing a scooter.)
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin marveled: “The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested.” De Palma tosses his narratives like a bloody knife into the laps of bystanders, who then feel compelled to solve the crime, to absolve their complicity. He’s always resisting arrest. A long Steadicam shot from Raising Cain (1992) glides with unnatural grace past the walkways, staircases and elevators of a police station, tilting sinuously around a criminal psychologist as she explains the plot; exposition is a maze De Palma dances through. His Battleship Potemkin tribute in The Untouchables — staircase, baby carriage, crossfire — seems alien to the movie around it, a bubble trembling over a gun barrel.
The split screen, De Palma’s favorite technique, concentrates distraction. It suggests the flux of sexual difference, darting between signals, your lens rupturing, your life juxtaposed against itself. Some of these compositions turn slyly dialectical: Passion (2012) places scenes from a Jerome Robbins ballet next to a sinister prowler, the bodies hovering in parallel. But that sequence also misdirects the viewer’s attention at crucial moments, a trick De Palma has used since 1973’s Sisters, his first thriller.
Sisters opens with a blind woman entering the wrong change room. A watching man stops her as she begins undressing, and the camera cuts away to reveal that people are watching them too, on the test-your-ethics game show Peeping Toms. The woman turns out to be a Quebecois model/actress named Danielle (Margot Kidder), and she convinces that fellow contestant to take her home with him, away from the ex-husband who’s been following her. After they wake up on the couch together, he learns of her twin Danielle, too late to realize that the other sister’s protective urges are homicidal. A neighbor sees his hand flash scarlet from window to window. Split-screen shots break the aftermath into fragments, that cubist shape of time experienced through security cameras, making everyone’s movements look both frantic and dazed.
The neighbor, Grace (Jennifer Salt), happens to be a journalist, and she tracks down an old documentary about Danielle and Dominique, revealing that the pair were once conjoined. Dominique died during the botched operation meant to give Danielle’s ex Emil Breton a compliantly solitary wife, her personality somehow absorbed by the remaining twin. Investigating a mental hospital, Grace gets drugged by Dr. Breton, who nearly manages to portray her suspicions as symptoms. She hallucinates herself inside that documentary, lying beneath a surgical blade passed around on reverent palms. Thirty years ago the critic Robin Wood argued: “One can define the monster of Sisters as women’s liberation; adding only that the film follows the time-honored horror tradition of making the monster emerge as the most sympathetic character.” The medical system encourages Emil’s urge to discipline anyone complicating gender or anatomy.
Evil twins have more fun. In his study The Double, the psychoanalyst Otto Rank argued that doppelgangers often serve as a “bad self,” the splinter persona responsible for each forbidden urge. The sadistic executive played by Rachel McAdams in Passion invites lovers to wear a mask stylized after her own face. No character spends much time having sex per se. The perverse intimacies of jealousy get them off: They all want each other, or to kill each other, or to be each other. No wonder so many people fantasize about their double — about knowing what it looks like from the outside.
Also of note is the release today of The Oliver Stone Experience, the massive new book put together by Matt Zoller Seitz, who interviewed Stone for it extensively over the past two or three years. Also, watch for Seitz to do a segment about the book sometime this week as he fills in for The Charlie Rose show.
I'll be posting more this week about all three of these items.
Olch: To your point about the iPad—there's a lot of chatter of Well, now people just watch things on iPads. But I think that if you want to stay at home, you're going to stay at home. If you want to go out, you're going out. The key thing is that going to the movies needs to be an experience that's special. So I don't think it's about whether or not you can watch the film somewhere else. It's about whether or not you want to come for an amazing experience.
Anderson: I could see a lot of young people becoming real movie buffs watching things on their phones and so on and then arriving in New York and going to Metrograph three times a week.
Olch: Yes! And there's real energy in the room. I recently stood in the back of the theater for the opening credits of Phantom of the Paradise, the De Palma movie, which I had never seen before. I wasn't going to watch it, but I stood completely still for the entire movie. It was a sold-out house. And the place went nuts during the film. It blew me away. I'm still reeling from that screening. People were leaving the theater and coming over to the bar and going into our restaurant talking about the film, getting even more excited about it.
That's great. And, you know, that's one of those movies that you really couldn't see for years and years. It had kind of disappeared. And I expect that audience at Metrograph was a much better—I don't know if Brian De Palma was there—
He wasn't. He's coming tonight for Hi, Mom! and Dressed to Kill.
I think, if he had been there, he might've said, I wish it would have played like this back in 1974.
You know, there's one more thing. I guess we can say, That was a good ending, and then we just keep going. Have you seen this film De Palma made of an op-art opening at the Museum of Modern Art around something like 1964 or something?
It's on YouTube. It's maybe 25 minutes or so where he documented an opening at the MoMA. Wandering around the party. Filming people and pictures.
Interesting characters. Some people we know. Anyway, it's one worth looking at on your iPad mini or your Apple wristwatch.
Absolutely. Most importantly, thank you very much.
"So, again, the Vertigo-ish aspects of Obsession are all but inescapable for those familiar with the earlier masterpiece, but like his later, overtly Psycho-influenced thriller Dressed to Kill (1980), De Palma adds problematic layers undreamt of by The Master. Indeed, the swirling camera around Courtland and his 're-found' lost love in a deliriously-lit airport lobby may be an almost exact copy of the most famous shot from Vertigo; however, the further provocative elements offered by De Palma’s Obsession make the act of 'viewing' the scene even more disturbing than Hitchcock himself intended."
Robert Hornak on Casualties Of War
"The contrast between the two [Sean Penn's Merserve and Michael J. Fox' Eriksson] has the effect of infusing everything with a certain cartoony two-dimensionality. But it works, insofar as this true story is beaten out into a morality tale about America – who it wants to be, coming face to face with who it might really be."
[Note: Contrast the above quote with the one from the other day about Blow Out, by Taylor Burns at Little White Lies: "Blow Out’s genius is to present the difference between what a country believes itself to be, and what it actually is. No matter the country. No matter who’s in charge."]
Sharon Autenrieth on Mission: Impossible
"I need someone who appreciates Brian De Palma’s style to walk me through a shot by shot study of Mission: Impossible so that I can get it."
Max Foizey on Phantom Of The Paradise
"I wholeheartedly agree with that library clerk and I’m sorry that I put off watching Phantom for as long as I did. Even being a fan of De Palma’s films, it was easy to shove Phantom off to the side. On the surface it seems so very unlike the rest of his work. When you think DePalma, you think sensuality, violence, and Hitchcock; you don’t think glam musical. But you should! Phantom of the Paradise is a De Palma film through and through, but with a mean satirical twist. It’s got horror, split screen, and voyeurism. Who else could have made this film? Nobody."
David Strugar on The Untouchables
"For me, many elements of the film have aged, not badly, but oddly. It’s a mystery to me now how Kevin Costner got famous, but his attractive dullness works here to portray the morally upright Elliot Ness. The whole storyline of a police force fighting its own corruption is suddenly timely again, as well as the ethical questions of fighting violence with violence—or of fighting a crime that doesn’t necessarily have to be a crime."
Film is perverse, and filmmakers are a special kind of pervert. They’re often presumed to be Peeping Toms, voyeurs with hard-ons for dark theatres and unnoticed gazes, but I’ve never known a filmmaker who likes action without their direction. They’re freaks for control, their preferred kink the crafting of an entire world that resembles a much better (or more fuckable) version of reality. They know what real life looks like — with its meandering plots and maddeningly open-ended storylines — and have chosen, instead, to find pleasure within celluloid correctives.
Filmgoers, on the other hand: we’re the ordinary perverts. We like to watch in the dark, and we like being told what to like. Our preferences guide us to the ticket counter, but part of the point of those darkened theatres, with their insulated walls and cushioned seats, is to get the privacy we need to find something new for our wants, our needs, our boners.
Brian De Palma, whose films are playing as part of a retrospective this summer at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, doesn’t find the new erotic. He likes old — old ideas, old references, his ideas about sex, violence and gender worn in like a vintage leather glove on our sweaty palms. De Palma’s films like Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Passion, are his most frequently invoked erotic thrillers, although many of his other films, which span genres like crime (Scarface), horror (Carrie) or psychological thriller (Raising Cain) include elements of the erotic, even when not intended to be explicitly so.
The movies, De Palma knows, are all sex. It’s the sluttiest medium. In her essay “The Decay of Cinema,” Susan Sontag eulogized what she saw as the inevitable death of film and cinephilia, saying that, “No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals — erotic, ruminative — of the darkened theater.” Perhaps not, but sorrow can be kind of hot. Mourning, in its most naked form, is an ache for something you’ve lost, and what’s more erotic than wanting what you can’t have?
In his interview with Chris Dumas, the author of Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible, Adam Nayman wrote of De Palma’s obsession with failure, both personal and political. “De Palma empathizes with characters (typically, men) whose inability to act, despite their moral certainty that they should, results in collateral damage,” wrote Nayman. “It’s typically embodied by a woman that will haunt them after the final fade out.”
The De Palma erotic thriller that is my favorite is Passion (2012), the most recent addition to his personal sub-canon. It’s a dreamy and nonsensical story about Christine (Rachel McAdams, completely perfect in the strangest film wardrobe I’ve ever seen: jewel-toned skintight turtlenecks with wide silk trousers, red brocade dresses and matching lip gloss), an insatiable advertising executive with a hot boyfriend and an even hotter junior associate, Isabelle. (Noomi Rapace, her black bangs cut with the same precision as her tailored black suits). Isabelle is fucking Christine’s boyfriend, Dirk. Christine is trying to fuck Isabelle, both literally and professionally: she steals one of Isabelle’s ideas before a big meeting, which is hot in only the way subtly aggro, overtly passive displays of female dominance can be hot. Those same principles apply to the scene when Christine makes Isabelle wear the same shade of red lipstick to a work function.
When Christine is murdered — another female lead down Janet Leigh’s shower drain — Isabelle becomes the suspect. Stealing another woman’s man and stealing her idea seem to be morally equivalent, providing a motive. Before the murder, Dirk tells Isabelle that Christine is, in bed, exactly as she is in real life, one rare moment where De Palma diverts from his expected modus operandi. Previously, his erotic thrillers were about characters who, in bed, were the people they wanted but couldn’t be in real life. Motive is its own kink in Passion, each character unsure of which jealousy prompted which violent crime: do Isabelle and Christine want each other, or just want to be each other?
Maybe De Palma thinks we’ll intuitively know how to answer that. His films are simple only in a Freudian sense, another favorite reference for filmmakers. In his erotic thrillers, the unknowable is the unfuckable. What his characters don’t understand, or can’t face, about their own identities, is what turns them into murderers. What his characters can’t see or find out about their own lives is what might make them victims. That’s why they’re given twins, or mirrored surfaces, or outfit changes to play opposite their personas. That’s why they’re watched, stalked and analyzed both in the film and by the audience. That’s what De Palma wants for us, the one experience neither filmmaker nor filmgoer will ever achieve despite our best efforts or best homages. In De Palma’s world, the best possible kink is the one just out of reach: to go fuck ourselves.
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