Not to present a sort of "point/counterpoint," but the articles about the new documentary De Palma by Armond White at National Review and Michael Sragow at Film Comment provide a somewhat intriguing contrast in views of the film from two critics who have followed Brian De Palma's work in-depth throughout much of his career. White is no fan of the documentary, saying that it presents "the artist as celebrity," and at one point stating of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, "They’re not counterculture; they are hipster culture." White then continues, "This film lowers De Palma’s reputation to the anti-intellectualism and insipid 'professionalism' common to today’s untutored filmmakers."
White's review carries the headline, "Taking the Politics Out of Movies"-- here's an excerpt (but defintely read the entire thing)...
Brian De Palma’s 1978 thriller The Fury is his greatest film. It has exemplary visual rhythm, emotional excitation tied to the concept of loyalty, and complex references to film history — plus, it has proven to be politically prescient. The Fury takes on the post-counterculture generation’s innocence (or naïveté) in its story of two psychically gifted teenagers, Gillian and Robin (Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens), who become pawns in government subterfuge and are pursued by a parental rogue agent (Kirk Douglas) and a sinister agency chief (John Cassavetes). The Fury’s unforgettable climax — the most cathartic ending in movie history — turned the post-Vietnam generations’ long-stifled, potentially dangerous energy into metaphor.
De Palma himself might be unaware of The Fury’s prescience; working from his Sixties-based affinity for youthful sexuality and suspicion of government, he was mostly conscious of creating a quasi-political satire, and so in the new interview film De Palma (released by the independent distributor A24), the now 75-year-old director underrates The Fury among other movies in his filmography. He fails to appreciate its astonishing accomplishment as a work of psychedelic emotional depth. (He prefers the conventional anti–Vietnam War cynicism in his 1989 Casualties of War.)...
...An artist’s work is its own defense. Otherwise, that’s what critics are for. But De Palma attests to the lack of critical thinking in contemporary culture. Tired, old complaints about De Palma’s kinetic, teasingly erotic, and often violent style become the basis of forcing the guy to say things like “I did grow up in an operating room; I saw a lot of blood.” Yes, De Palma was the son of a philandering New Jersey orthopedic surgeon (as depicted in his 1978 family comedy Home Movies), but, more importantly, he was the artistic son of several key filmmakers who were also fearless about bravura provocation.
This disappointing documentary never explores the inspiration De Palma drew from Orson Welles (flamboyant, self-conscious technique and Shakespearean morality); Fritz Lang (paranoid examination of social decadence); and Jean-Luc Godard (political wit folded into aesthetic examination). The confluence of their ideas is ignored in the documentary’s emphasis on De Palma’s unabashed parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense devices.
Aesthetics and political morality are rarely discussed in relation to De Palma’s movies (his hits Carrie, The Fury, and The Untouchables have notable resemblances to the work of Luis Buñuel, John Boorman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Sergei Eisenstein as much as to that of Hitchcock). Instead, shallow critics and film buffs concentrate on his borrowing Hollywood narrative and so never appreciate him as a distinctive figure of late-20th-century filmmaking. This is proof of cultural illiteracy in our technically advanced, supposedly sophisticated age; as such, it’s a sociological problem. Too much time is wasted on De Palma’s defending his misunderstood movies and answering philistine charges about fame, sexism, and brutality.
Today, in “the Golden Age of Television,” filmmakers are no longer regarded as visual artists; neither are they respected for their social perception. De Palma demonstrates an even worse situation: celebrating a filmmaker as a celebrity. Emphasis on behind-the-scenes gossip (such as the story of De Palma bilking Paramount out of money before eventually turning down an offer to direct Flashdance) ignores the possibility of serious artistry. De Palma says: “You’re battling a very difficult system [in Hollywood], and all the values of that system are the opposite of what goes into making good original movies.”
Failing to clarify De Palma’s Godardian–Langian–Wellesian challenge to the politics and morality of the Hollywood system makes De Palma a documentary for political naïfs and fame-whore pseudo-cinephiles. It is conceived to please millennial careerophiles. Dubious hero worship ignores how De Palma was spurred by political and aesthetic curiosity. He recounts his career journey, yet never gets to the nitty-gritty of the genre revisionism that was the hallmark of his films and those of the Seventies directors he name-checks. (“There was Marty [Scorsese], and then there was George [Lucas] and Francis [Coppola] and Steven [Spielberg]. What we did in our generation will never be duplicated.”)
In his concluding paragraph, White brings it all back to The Fury, "an Expressionist thriller and much more: a potent distillation of the personal and political conflicts that define De Palma’s sensibility and linger in the social miasma of the new millennium. De Palma always works on his sexual and political subconscious. As with any movie artist, every film is political, every film is a public address. But De Palma offers a layman’s inquiry, not a critic’s nor an expert’s. That the makers of this documentary could let De Palma disparage The Fury proves they’re inadequate to appreciate his movies at all."
SRAGOW: DE PALMA'S FILMS ARE "TIME CAPSULES THAT GO OFF LIKE FIREWORKS"
Happily, Baumbach and Paltrow’s quick-fingered succession of excerpts and the director’s running commentary explode conventional wisdom while conveying both his virtuosity and indelible engagement with his times. You can’t see this sampling without savoring how issues like race, political executions, and urban crime recur explicitly and implicitly in his work. Although De Palma’s movies may seem, at first glance, “dated,” they turn out to be enveloping and immediate—time capsules that go off like fireworks. Supreme entertainments like Carrie and Dressed to Kill contain unexpected resonances. Who would have guessed that in Carrie, [Piper] Laurie’s remarkable paradox of a performance—her passionate portrayal of a repressed and repressive religious zealot—would reverberate even more strongly in 2016 than it did in 1976?...
...De Palma creates a visual style so operatic and balletic that Dressed to Kill boasts the imaginative impact of surrealism, while remaining cunningly observant about life in New York circa 1980. What makes De Palma a master pop satirist is his refusal to preach and his utter lack of inhibition. When [Nancy] Allen runs into the subway to escape the killer, it’s a great out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire moment. Who would seek safety in the New York subways of the Mayor Koch era? De Palma captures the racial and social-political tensions of that moment without dilution or apology.
In De Palma, the director talks perceptively about his own influences. The documentary opens with De Palma’s memories of seeing Vertigo as a kid and coming to appreciate it as an adult. He says filmmakers love Hitchcock’s movie because it’s all about what directors do: Hitchcock creates a romantic illusion—and then kills it, twice. In the clips from the Master of Suspense, you can see everything De Palma learned from Hitchcock: his cunning use of subjective camera and his deployment of every tool at a director’s disposal, including blocking, lighting, cutting, and special effects to adopt his characters’ often dizzying perspectives. Hitchcock, though, rarely moved his camera as sinuously as De Palma, who drew on the work of many other directors, including Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, to create his own simultaneously voluptuous and incisive style. De Palma never sounds more Hitchcockian in De Palma than when he says he starts with “a construction,” not characters, then engages the actors to fill them in and root them in reality—unlike, he says, “you guys” (Baumbach and Paltrow), who start with characters and build films around them. It’s remarkably similar to what Truffaut told Hitchcock: “Your point of departure is not the content but the container.” This stance explains perfectly why he would clash with a character-is-action filmmaker of equal stature, Robert Towne, on the screenplay for Mission Impossible.
This film definitively illustrates that with De Palma, as with any talented movie artist, the truth about his work is often richer and more elusive than his statement of intent. Blow Out stems from a plot De Palma sees as “a construction”: a movie sound technician (Travolta) uses the tools of his trade to prove that a governor’s fatal car accident was a political execution. Every scrap of that construction seems personal to De Palma and becomes a matter of life or death to us. It kicks off with a parody of soft-core horror porn but ends with a portrait of a man trapped inside his own technology. Blow Out is such a mind-blowing movie because it does the reverse of what De Palma says Hitchcock does in Vertigo. De Palma and his hero don’t spend the movie creating an illusion but uncovering a reality moviegoers recognize as a mash-up—not of movie thrillers, but of all the Kennedy tragedies, Chappaquiddick, as well as the assassinations. The central relationship is not an obsessive romance but a tender friendship between the soundman and a makeup counter girl and escort (Nancy Allen) who is sitting next to Pennsylvania’s governor when a tire blows out and his car goes into the Schuylkill River. When Travolta’s character turns the death throes of a murdered woman into the “good scream” he’s been seeking for an exploitation picture, the soundtrack for the movie-within-the-movie becomes the hero’s continuous loop of suffering. De Palma describes the underlying sting of Blow Out: its subliminal message is that even if we stumbled upon exactly what happened in the JFK assassination, nobody would care...
...All of De Palma’s movies contain patches of sublimity or inventiveness, including the much-maligned Mission to Mars (00) and The Black Dahlia (06). De Palma provides a one-of-a-kind filmmaker’s perspective on everything from the runaway costs and escalating burdens of big-studio moviemaking—he made Carrie for $1.8 million, Mission to Mars for $100 million—to the haphazard ways an American movie artist-entertainer must cobble together a career from mixed opportunities and accidents. At age 75, he ruefully admits that filmmakers are usually remembered for movies they make in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. He talks straight from the shoulder about his cave-in to commercial worries on the epochal calamity of The Bonfire of the Vanities (90), and about his inability to find a satisfying ending to Snake Eyes. He tells Baumbach and Paltrow that endings are always a problem, and that you’re lucky if you find two or three that hit the bull’s-eye in the course of a career.
De Palma has the best kind of ending for a director documentary: it leaves us wondering what’s yet to come from this protean and multifaceted filmmaker.
Updated: Sunday, June 12, 2016 3:40 PM CDT
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