DISCUSSES SISTERS / PHANTOM / CARRIE / OBSESSION / THE FURY
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Jeremy Lowe on Carrie
It had to have been October of ’89, and I had just started junior high. After school I’d always hang out at my best friend’s house and watch TV. Of course being Halloween season we were looking forward to seeing some brutal horror movie. Needless to say, his Mom was home early from work and watching some old chick flick. Ugh!
Regardless, we sat for a minute. Woah, why are all they throwing tampons at this poor girl? “I thought you liked horror movies and Stephen King?”, asked Jon’s mother. I answered, “of course I do, especially horror movies based on Stephen King books” (at 12 years old, I hadn’t actually read any Stephen King books). “Well, this is CARRIE, watch it, you’ll like it.”
Mrs. Dubey was wrong, I didn’t like CARRIE, I fucking loved it! Being a shy outcast, I genuinely felt for Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). I could completely identify with her. All she wanted was to fit in. The direction was so excellent. Each character knew who they were and what they were doing. During the whole film, I just wanted poor Carrie to get her revenge. When she did, it was spectacular! I loved the blood, the chaos, it was everything I wanted. The score really intensified the whole scene. Then to witness all this in a crazy split screen, what I later learned to be one of Brian De Palma’s trademarks, overwhelmed me… completely blew my mind.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of CARRIE will always be one of the best horror movies, high school revenge film, and my kind of chick flick!
The layers of familiarity are almost deceptive: it’d be easy to dismiss OBSESSION as De Palma’s fanboy attempt to ape his idol, especially since his devotion to recapturing Hitchcock’s sweeping, melodramatic aesthetic is almost slavish. However, it’s more a fitting decoy designed to lure an unsuspecting audience down a path that quickly veers into the sort of lurid territory that Hitchcock only implied. OBSESSION climaxes with a dizzying display of ambiguity, a sublime moment that rapturously lays bare the psychosexual preoccupations of its director. It can be argued that this, too, is the moment De Palma truly arrived — even if he only stepped out of Hitchcock’s shadow long enough to be caught in his own a few months later.
I tend to separate De Palma into two categories: Prime-De Palma and Sub-De Palma. His prime stuff is pretty easy to recognize, with THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, SISTERS, CARRIE, BLOW OUT, and DRESSED TO KILL, and his sub stuff (while still great) is everything else. That all being said though there’s only one movie that’s PURE Brian De Palma, a film that puts all of his strengths and weaknesses on display in one gloriously grimy package.
Thats right, I’m talking about BODY DOUBLE.
The mystery at the core of the conspiracy is revealed early on in the film, but as DePalma explained upon the film’s release the movie is not about the core but rather about the relationship between Cage’s corrupt Rick Santoro, attempting to something pure, and good for once in his life, and Sinise’s murderous Boy Scout, who, while his intentions may be pure, is going about things the right way. We see two friends — told in broad strokes — who keep an uneasy loyalty to each other, even when at odds with what they believe is right. DePalma’s slick, knowing camera work (a very long take — with hidden edits — opens the film) elevates SNAKE EYES from forgettable Hollywood boilerplate to exciting, B-movie trash with a terrifically nihilistic ending.
I was six when that film came out. One night, I was in the car with my parents, going who-knows-where, when we passed the local drive-in theater, which was playing PHANTOM. Already obsessed with movies even at that young age, I eagerly looked over to catch a glimpse of the screen as we drove by. In those five seconds, I saw the shot where the rock star known as Beef is electrocuted onstage and his face contorts from the shock. I’d never seen anything like that before. It was fascinating, making me wonder what the film was about and what other kinds of things happened in the story. It was only a few years ago that I finally got around to seeing PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE in its entirety, but to my delight, it was every bit as bizarre as I imagined it would be back in ’74. In many ways, this is the magic of movies for me. Little bits and pieces stick with you for years, or even decades, and the way you saw something becomes an integral part of your experience with it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed PHANTOM regardless (it’s got good music, great style, and an awesomely kooky sense of humor), but the fact that I had that tiny snippet lodged in my brain for years made my eventual discovery of the film so much more powerful.
Fuck it, I guess it might be an overly-obvious choice — although no one here has made it yet — but SCARFACE is an absolute classic. It’s not the sexualized updating on Hitchcock that DePalma made his bread and butter, but it’s a visceral, unforgettable gut-punch with incredible characters, razor-sharp dialogue, blistering and operatic ultraviolence, and pathos enough to make the ancient Greeks envious. One of the best crime films ever made.
Grace’s quest for the truth leads her to a mental hospital, where she is to discover the truth about Dominique. Here, Grace is mistaken for a patient and her insistence on her true identity is laughed off as a delusion by the men in charge. It’s a truly harrowing moment that resonated with me as both a woman and a journalist, as Grace has her agency stripped from her so easily and quickly. This storyline was later revisited in American Horror Story: Asylum, a series on which Salt serves as both producer and writer. Finally, I adore the film’s dark ending, with everyone finally ready to believe Grace, who (thanks to her hypnosis at the hand’s of Danielle’s husband) no longer has any memory of the murder. De Palma would only get better after SISTERS, but the film’s flashes of genius, its unwavering commitment to exploring the darker side of identity, sanity and sexuality, paired with a unhappy and somewhat unresolved ending make it a must-see for me.
The one I’ve seen the most is SCARFACE. The one I’ve heard the most (due to the Ennio Morricone score) is THE UNTOUCHABLES. The one I’ve studied the closest is BLOW OUT. The one I’d most like to take another look at is THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. The one I kinda still can’t believe actually exists is PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. (And thank God for that one existing, by the way.) The first one I remember seeing is CASUALTIES OF WAR.
Then there’s the first one I didn’t remember seeing.
I watched BODY DOUBLE again in 2015. I thought I hadn’t seen it before, but I was mistaken. Ever have an involuntary autobiographical memory? Turns out I first saw BODY DOUBLE when I was six or seven. My dad was watching it on cable. I came in during the beach scene.
I remember now thinking it was a foreign film, since my dad watched plenty of those at the time, and particularly since that sequence is so sparsely worded, and heavy on soft-focus visual style and Pino Dinaggio’s orchestral music. (Not to mention that protagonist Craig Wasson has the sort of looks that would easier make sense for a star in France than one in America. There’s something sort of Depardieu-ish going on there.)
Anyway, if you remember how that scene ends, you might understand why I figured it was time I left the room. Unfortunately, all of that prompted a conversation about the birds and the bees that I was just not ready to have.
Some movies you can’t completely extricate from that sort of viewing experience. As an adult I can totally admire the film, even while re-experiencing it through the lens of a six-or-seven-year-old’s absolute confusion.
Now, I suppose, the rest is a matter for psychotherapy.
From the beginning (the end of the 60s) and until today (Passion, 2012), and tomorrow still certainly, the staging of Brian De Palma will never cease to play the game of cat and mouse. But in a version where the roles are constantly reversed: to be beaten at one's own game...
Split screens, double focal lengths, slow motion, 360-degree panning, dives and counter-dives, multiplication of angles and axes, aerial camera, so many ways to expose a mise en scène or to sum up all reality to its mise en scène. In short, a sophisticated device of signs as so many indices that give the viewer the illusion of his omniscience: if all reality holds in its staging as in a box, then nothing is supposed to escape the one who Looks in the box. De Palma likes nothing more than to drive the spectator-voyeur, to make him go around the owner, to direct his glance and to designate a detail (to better conceal another). Is that not the very subject of Body Double?
The vertical plunge holds a place of choice in the De Palma fireworks. It is even a recurring motif of his work, a motif that is often quickly interpreted as a tribute to Hitchcock (the opening credits of North by Northwest, the staircase of Psycho, the tower of Vertigo, the pipe organ of Secret Agent…). In the visual economy of the cinema of De Palma, it is also the ultimate ruse: the zenithal point of view seems to make each spectator a god. Nothing escapes it apparently, everything is given to see and everything is seen, the foreground doubled as background. But this phantasm of all power makes him forget his constitutive infirmity: the spectator, like a character of De Palma, has no eyes in the back (if it were otherwise, Carlito would still be alive ...). It is there, at his back, that De Palma stands, and with him the truth of all his staging: there is always someone or something that looks at the one who looks. As in a game of mirrors, or in the painting by Magritte (Not to be Reproduced), one is always seen as "the eye was in the grave and looked at Cain" (Victor Hugo , La Conscience).
Here in the present, how often does “Some Kind of Wonderful” come up for each of you?
Howard Deutch: Quite a bit, actually. Which is ironic because it wasn’t considered a hit when it came out. But it’s a meaningful movie to people and I met my wife on set so it’s a meaningful movie to me.
Most people talk about it like I talk about a movie I didn’t direct and I don’t think the other person has heard of. They don’t talk about “Some Kind of Wonderful” as completely unknown or an underdog but they cherish it because it hadn’t been this massive hit movie. It’s not like they’re saying, “Have you ever seen this little movie, “Back to the Future?”
Lea Thompson: It wasn’t a bomb, but definitely a disappointment. Yet it seems to have a broad base around the world that are really touched by it and quote it. I just asked on Instagram and Twitter about everyone’s favorite line from the movie and was amazed how many people have so many different memories of it.
I also hear from more men than women who love it, but I can’t tell you why. Maybe because it’s two girls fighting over a guy? Or because it’s about a guy trying to find himself? I also hear from a lot of gay women who love Watts.
You both have worked more or less continuously in films and television since 1987. Where do you see “Some Kind of Wonderful” in the arc of your work?
Deutch: I had only made one other movie up to that point and couldn’t cast the role Eric Stoltz ended up playing. Around that time, I ended up on a plane with (director) Brian De Palma, whom I didn’t really know. He told me, “If you can’t cast it, don’t make it.” I mentioned this to John and suggested I do one of his other scripts and ended up in movie jail. Paramount locked the door of my office.
Martha Coolidge (director of “Valley Girl”) was brought on to replace me. The script was originally a broad comedy and John made rewrites to take it in the direction of Martha’s sensibility, which was darker and more adult. Martha cast Eric. But when she and John had disagreements, I was brought back with a different script, a leading actor. A different movie.
Thompson: I was 26 when I made “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Right before, I had made “Howard the Duck,” which got terrible reviews. I thought my career was over. Eric Stoltz, whom I had become friends with while working together on both “Back to the Future” [Stolz was the original Marty McFly] and “The Wild Life,” acting as a messenger for Howard, delivered the script to my house. Howie saw me as right for Amanda even though I had already turned it down because I thought Watts [the character ultimately played by Mary Stuart Masterson] was the better part. I needed a job. Amanda was my second chance.
Resolved: Split screen is an underutilized cinematic device.
That’s how I would have phrased it back in my high-school debating days. Which seems appropriate, because—as was often the case with debate resolutions—I’m not 100 percent certain that I believe it, even though coming up with arguments that support it isn’t terribly difficult. For one thing, split screen is employed so infrequently that I associate it almost exclusively with Brian De Palma, who loves to construct elaborate, suspenseful set pieces that show two or more events unfolding simultaneously. And it’s easy to wonder, after being thrilled by one of De Palma’s dual orchestrations, why he’s long enjoyed a near-monopoly on this approach, which takes such striking advantage of the medium’s intrinsic qualities—that is, of the ability to manipulate time and/or space. I still haven’t seen Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which I believe is split screen from start to finish… but I have seen Forty Deuce, a 1982 drama directed by Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, in which, throughout the film’s very stagy second half, the frame constantly offers two separate angles of the same action, side by side. It’s mostly a distraction—as I said, I’m not entirely convinced of my own thesis here—but I’ve always sensed untapped potential in the idea.
My favorite recent use of split screen, though, involves the manipulation not of time or space, exactly, but of the protagonist’s consciousness. (500) Days Of Summer is a gimmicky movie in a lot of ways, starting with the parenthesis in its title; it has an omniscient narrator, jumps all over the place chronologically, and at one point sees its hero, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perform an impromptu musical number, accompanied by dancing extras and animated birds. Most of this quirkiness can be filed under “cutesy,” and will either delight or irritate, according to taste. But the movie does have a more downbeat side, which comes most strongly to the fore during a brief sequence toward the end, when Gordon-Levitt’s Tom shows up at a party being thrown by ex-girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber want to show us how what happens at the party deviates from what Tom imagined would happen, and either they or director Marc Webb decided to do so by splitting the frame down the middle, with “Expectations” on the left and “Reality” on the right...
...What finally makes this sequence so effective, though, is how credibly mundane both Expectation(s) and Reality are—a choice that the use of split screen enables. Had the two versions of the party been presented one after the other, it probably would have been necessary to exaggerate them slightly, in order to highlight the differences (especially since that almost surely would have meant discovering that the initial version is Tom’s fantasy only after the fact). Showing them simultaneously lets the viewer’s darting eyes, rather than memory, do all the work, allowing each side of the frame to be unremarkable in and of itself. Tom’s romantic expectation(s) of Summer on the left are entirely consistent with what we’ve seen of their relationship earlier in the movie, and real-life Summer on the right doesn’t ignore or belittle him. What we get is a vision of bland sweetness opposite the sort of friendly awkwardness and moderate avoidance that you’d expect of two people not long out of a failed relationship. Only when Tom sees that Summer has gotten engaged to someone else does the hammer truly fall… at which point the Reality half of the frame pushes the Expectation(s) half (in which Tom and Summer are making out) entirely offscreen. And only one Tom descends the stairs.
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