IF YOU HAVE 3 HOURS TO KILL (PLUS 7 MINUTES)
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Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
"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.
While it was released earlier in 1976, Brian De Palma’s OBSESSION soon found itself in the shadow of CARRIE, meaning it was destined to be forever overlooked in the director’s oeuvre. In retrospect, it’s almost apt that these particular films arrived within months of each other because they capture a director at a crossroads. Over the course of the previous five years, De Palma had come to find a singular voice in films like SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and CARRIE feels like a culmination: this was the moment De Palma truly arrived.
And yet, it wasn’t quite enough for Brian De Palma to just be Brian De Palma, as he found himself famously chasing the ghosts of Hitchcock. That chase was arguably never as furious (or obvious) as it is with OBSESSION, which finds De Palma and co-writer Paul Schrader circling VERTIGO (to the tune of a Bernard Herrmann score, no less). Cliff Robertson replaces Jimmy Stewart as the ill-fated, lovelorn man at the film’s center, a New Orleans real estate developer who loses his wife and daughter to a botched kidnapping scheme. Years later, he falls for and marries a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his dead wife, and déjà vu appropriately hangs thick as De Palma retraces Hitchcock’s steps.
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.
The only time I ever interviewed Brian De Palma was back in 2007 about his much-maligned Iraq war drama Redacted. The film used the fact-based story of American military personnel who’d raped and murdered an Iraqi woman to critique both the second Gulf war and the increasingly untrustworthy 21st Century visual culture that manufactured a narrative of images for international consumption. Given Redacted’s relentless focus on the politics of perception, I thought it would be good to start by paraphrasing one of the key lines in De Palma’s screenplay back at him. “Do you really think,” I asked one of the most notorious voyeurs in the history of cinema, “that it is ‘impolite to stare?'” The pause before De Palma replied seemed to go on forever. Instead of answering, he simply repeated the question — “is it impolite to stare?” — while looking me dead in the eye, to the point that I almost regretted asking it in the first place.
ADAM NAYMAN: WHAT IS INVOLVED IN CLAIMING — OR RE-CLAIMING — BRIAN DE PALMA AS A "POLITICAL FILMMAKER?” WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, IS THE PRIMAL SCENE OF HIS "POLITICAL" SIDE? AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SITUATE SOMEBODY RECOGNIZED AS A MAINSTREAM FILMMAKER WITHIN A COUNTERCULTURAL CONTEXT?
Chris Dumas: Well, I'd say that it requires re-thinking what it means to be a "political" filmmaker. Before 1960 or so, I suppose it meant that you made movies like Salt of the Earth — serious, sober melodramas about injustice. Now, after 9/11, I guess it means documentaries, The Big Short or historical gestures like Selma. But in between, there was Godard, and the idea that cinematic form itself was political — the morality-of-the-tracking-shot idea. Godard made it okay to do political work inside the confines of genre, and that's the path that De Palma found.
Sisters, for example: it's hard not to admire the chutzpah of remaking Psycho with an African-American male in the Janet Leigh role, and with a crusading white feminist reporter in the Vera Miles role. Then the double chutzpah of the hopeless, the-system-always-wins ending. I guess that hopelessness, coupled with the attention to genre, is what makes it hard for some American cinephiles, mostly those of a certain age, to see De Palma as having a politics. Americans, especially white Americans, like happy endings. And American audiences don't like feeling like they've been the butt of a joke, which of course is the De Palma trademark.
As for the "primal scene" of his politics — I've always wanted to ask him about that. Was it when he was a teenager and got shot by a cop? You've probably heard that, here in the USA, the cops really like to shoot people. I'd imagine that surviving something like that would probably make you reflect on society a little bit.
ADAM: LET'S GO WITH THE SHOT-BY-A-COP IDEA. I WONDER IF ONE WAY TO START TALKING ABOUT GREETINGS AND HI, MOM! IS HOW THEY SITUATE THEMSELVES IN DIFFERENT WAYS AGAINST INSTITUTIONS AND AUTHORITY FIGURES, AND THE INTERSECTION OF PERSONAL AND POLITICAL GRIEVANCE. THEIR NARRATIVE WORLDS AND CHARACTERS — ESPECIALLY DE NIRO — ARE REFLECTIONS OF THE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT ATTITUDE OF THE DIRECTOR. BUT THERE'S ALSO MORE THAN YOUTHFUL CYNICISM AT WORK IN THESE FILMS. I'D TAKE YOUR IDEA ABOUT GODARD AND REVERSE IT BY SAYING THEY SEEM TO BE STRAINING AGAINST GENRE, AND TRYING TO EXPLODE IT, FROM THE INSIDE OUT.
Chris: Possibly so, but what genre are they straining against? De Palma didn't really commit fully to Hitchcock until Sisters. I'd say, before that, he was less concerned with understanding those kinds of rules and techniques—he was still more Masculin/Feminin than Rear Window. He knew he didn't like The System, however that was defined (the police, the draft board). But authority figures, representatives of that system, were still at a remove. Like LBJ on the television in Greetings — they're not ordinary human beings yet, the way they are in Blow Out. He's not yet seeing the institutions as rickety structures produced by human weakness, but as something monolithic, imposed from above.
Anyway, youthful cynicism is different from the cynicism of the disappointed, disillusioned adult. What you get over time in De Palma, but not in the rest of his cohort (Scorsese, et al.), is the slow realization that things are actually even worse than you imagined. A friend of mine once met Oliver Stone, and he took the opportunity to ask him what it was like to work with De Palma. Stone grew thoughtful and replied that De Palma was the saddest man he'd ever met. Not sad as in pathetic, I think, but broken, past hope, depressive. Hi, Mom! isn't like that, but Sisters certainly is.
Thanks to Romain at the Virtuoso of the 7th Art for sending along an interesting paragraph from the October 2011 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, which featured a cover story on Michael Cimino. For the issue, writer Jean-Baptiste Thoret journeyed with Cimino for three days between Los Angeles and Colorado, to see the landscapes of Cimino's cinema. On the trip, Thoret met Michael Stevenson, who was an assistant director on Cimino's Heaven's Gate. Stevenson told Thoret an interesting story, which Romain has kindly sent along to us:
I worked on Mission: Impossible with Brian De Palma. We came back from Roma, from a James Bond-like set, and we were going to shoot that scene on the train with Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames and Vanessa Redgrave. During a break, Brian sat on a chair and talked about cinema in general with his crew. Suddenly, Cimino's name came up. They knew I'd worked with him, so they invited me to join the conversation. Everybody was wondering why Cimino doesn't make movies anymore. Then, one of them said: "But is he really such a good film director?" De Palma shot daggers at him and told him, straight in the eye, with an icy calm: "The guy who made The Deer Hunter is a great filmmaker." That was the end of the conversation."
(Thanks to Romain!)
One would assume De Palma reins in these aesthetic statements of intent for the bulk of a film concerned with plot, but it’s too giddily drunk on what opportunities genre filmmaking allows for experimentation. What sets Murder apart from say, Scorsese’s debut, Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, is an assurance that comes with De Palma’s handling of both camera and genre, demonstrating how intensely familiar he is with the archetypes at work and how easily, even at this nascent stage, he can pervert them. Much is taken from Psycho, including a subplot involving a stolen envelope of money — but, most interestingly, manipulation of voiceover to both elucidate and obscure character motivations revolving around the film’s central murder. Nonlinear narrative and vantage points are tampered with (although the transitions between these are the movie’s clunkiest moments), providing a ground zero for a significant facet of Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.
Changes in film speed and stock are also among Murder à la Mod’s pleasures, indeed pointing to the influence both silent comedies and, more immediately, the French New Wave had on De Palma’s sensibilities; however, late-60s Truffaut, rather than Godard, strikes one as the greater figure looming over the film, with its attention to the rules of suspense. But aforementioned perversions of the precedents set by Hitchcock and others are what make De Palma’s cinema worthwhile. A noteworthy moment: as the camera is stealthily following Karen to the shower, a detour is taken around a corner to reveal an unidentified hand holding out an ominous clock for the audience to see. This digression exposes a key aspect of the way De Palma films thrillers: the camera (and, therefore, audience) is just as complicit in the gory violence enacted upon victims.
Otto is revealed to be the closest thing to an audience surrogate in the film’s climax — which takes place in a projection booth, naturally. He becomes an accidental murderer, through a mishap between a real and trick ice pick — a perfect metaphor for Brian De Palma’s prevailing style if ever there was one — and is genuinely bewildered by what he has done. He then happens upon Karen’s “photobiography,” which contains an image of her corpse, and hauntingly remarks, “A picture. He killed her and he put her in the picture.” In that indelible final moment, the induction of Brian De Palma as a significant cinematic voice is undeniable.
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