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Domino is
a "disarmingly
work that "pushes
us to reexamine our
relationship to images
and their consumption,
not only ethically
but metaphysically"
-Collin Brinkman

De Palma on Domino
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I was not involved
in the ADR, the
musical recording
sessions, the final
mix or the color
timing of the
final print."

Listen to
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"a horror movie
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in the news"

Supercut video
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Washington Post
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Brian De Palma
Karoline Herfurth
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Friday, February 10, 2023

Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill is one of four films screening as part of a season at Watershed in Bristol, titled "Reflections and Refractions: Gender on Screen." De Palma's film is being presented as "problematic," although curator Harriet Taylor, who will introduce each screening and offer discussion in the Watershed cafe afterwards, suggests that including Dressed To Kill in the series will "afford audiences the vital opportunity to consider its issues – especially representations of gender – with deeper understanding and fresh viewpoints." In an article to introduce the series, Taylor writes of Dressed To Kill:
This is a particularly difficult title to speak about, not just because of its content, but how it is worked into the narrative. Instead of spoiling the screening, I’d rather keep my criticism short. However, one should note it is among the most brazenly transphobic narratives in the history of cinema, and its inclusion in this season is primarily to emphasise this point. It cannot be excused, but also cannot be ignored for what it is.

In 2020, Jessica Crets wrote an article for Crooked Marquee and addressed such criticisms of Dressed To Kill:
As a fan of De Palma and a trans woman, I’ve always struggled with this film. Over the years, a different portrait of the trans killer Bobbi began to emerge; each new viewing led me to believe there’s more empathy towards her than other critical readings have suggested.

The film has some pop psychology gobbledygook about two sexes inhabiting the same body – that both Dr. Elliott and Bobbi, the trans woman, wanted control, and Dr. Elliot barred Bobbi’s transition. Liz asks Bobbi’s gender psychiatrist, Dr. Levy, about this: “You mean when Elliot got turned on, Bobbi took over?” Levy responds, “Yes, it was like Bobbi’s red alert. Elliot’s penis became erect and Bobbi took control, trying to kill anyone that made Elliot masculinely sexual.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was much harder for trans people to be able to transition in America. One would have to fit a very narrow criteria to be approved for the process. The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, long one of America’s primary trans gatekeeping associations, described it this way in 2001:

During the 1960s and 1970s, clinicians used the term true transsexual. The true transsexual was thought to be a person with a characteristic path of atypical gender identity development that predicted an improved life from a treatment sequence that culminated in genital surgery. True transsexuals were thought to have: 1) cross-gender identifications that were consistently expressed behaviorally in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; 2) minimal or no sexual arousal to cross-dressing; and 3) no heterosexual interest, relative to their anatomic sex… Belief in the true transsexual concept for males dissipated when it was realized that such patients were rarely encountered, and that some of the original true transsexuals had falsified their histories to make their stories match the earliest theories about the disorder.

An argument can be made that Dr. Elliott, who would have been familiar with these gatekeeping guidelines, would have found it impossible that he could be trans. Most of his profession would have believed this, which could have caused him to try to squash these desires. In fact, Dr. Elliot represents the psychiatric field’s gatekeeping of trans people for not fitting a very narrow definition, which came from the doctor’s own biases over what makes someone a man or a woman.

Does this make Bobbi the secret hero of ​Dressed to Kill?​ Not really, as she is still committing murder. To some extent, she represents the way marginalized communities can sometimes misdirect their anger towards other marginalized communities. It’s the patriarchal field of psychology that has prevented her from transitioning, but she instead focuses on the immediate problem: that when she sees attractive women she becomes aroused and this prevents her from reaching her goal of transition. Rather than blame the problem, she blames a symptom of the problem.

Did De Palma set out to hide all this subtext in Dressed to Kill? Probably not, but there are two things about De Palma that aren’t talked about enough. One is that the man does his research. He certainly did not set out to make a film about trans gatekeeping, but he seems to have done enough research to have been aware of its existence – and that impacted where his film went and how he dealt with the (admittedly loose) psychology in it. Without meaning to, he crafted a story that actually tells us important things about the way trans people were treated in the late ‘70s.

The second point is that De Palma, for all the talk of cruelty that surrounds his filmography, is ultimately an empathetic filmmaker.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
Updated: Saturday, February 11, 2023 8:12 AM CST
Post Comment | View Comments (5) | Permalink | Share This Post

Saturday, February 11, 2023 - 11:18 AM CST

Name: "JJ"

I'd be intereested to find out why the festival curator considers it one of the most "brazenly transphobic narratives in the history of cinema" - in comparison to the likes of "Silence of the Lambs," for example - which is quite the hyperbolic claim.

No doubt its trans aspect is problematic, but I hope the discussion explores how Bobbi is also a figurative abstraction of the movie's doubling theme, and so wasn't intended to be a literal depiction of a trans person. This doesn't "excuse" the movie's impact on a trans viewer, but it should be argued in terms of De Palma's intent.

Saturday, February 11, 2023 - 7:10 PM CST

Name: "Harry Georgatos "

I don't get all these criticisms that DRESSED TI KILL isn't 100 percent accurate to trans gender analysis. DePalma's DRESSED TO KILL is in the terrain of B movie psycho slasher tropes of the genre. No different to Hitchcock's PSYCHO. DePalma was able to go places where Hitchcock wasn't allowed to go with PSYCHO. DePalmas movie for me is a better film then PSYCHO and PSYCHO is a masterpiece in itself. All these naysayers making criticism of DePalma's DRESSED TO KILL for his light commentary  of trans gender analysis didn't get the film. It's a classic Horror slasher movie of stunning visual story telling. A new fashion of murder.

Saturday, February 11, 2023 - 10:08 PM CST

Name: "Musical Shore"

I wish I could articulate this better, but De Palma is obviously taking the piss out of the audience with the doctor's explanation, followed by the graphic description of sex reassignment surgery at the restaurant with the society women listening in looking like they're going throw up, followed by the most elaborate spectacle of the film, which gives the audience what they came to see - Nancy Allen butchered, followed by an ending recycled from Carrie. People are morons. To explain the significance of all that is beyond my powers, but anyone viewing this movie as transphobic is asking the wrong questions.

Monday, February 13, 2023 - 11:26 AM CST

Name: "Chris"

I also share JJ's puzzlement that Silence of the Lambs (which includes a far more negative portrayal of a trans character) seems to have gotten a stamp of approval from the same figures who now regularly lambast Dressed to Kill. Silence was widely picketed and criticized by LGBT activists in 1991. Interesting how that has faded from collective memory.

And kudos to Geoff for including an excerpt from Jessica Crets' writing. Jessica is a gem and her writing (and comments in interviews) about De Palma have been very thoughtful and insightful. I don't remember her exact words but I heard her give a talk where she contextualized De Palma's early political radicalism and his influence from Godard in a more concise and interesting way than anyone else I've heard on that subject.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023 - 10:52 AM CST

Name: "Dorian "

The film historian Nathaniel Thompson once observed that Dressed to Kill works very well as a commentary on inherent prejudice against women, kids, and gender nonconformity. In recent years, people have confused editorializing for film criticism. I also think it’s both sad and tragic when people go to the movies for their politics.

Poor De Palma. The cultural discourse has changed greatly since 1980 – remember when Andy Sarris said it was as original as a MacDonald’s hamburger – but the conversation remains degraded. What was once a blatant Hitchcock rip-off and virulent piece of misogyny is now transphobic and racist (the latter being a recent criticism I’ve seen hurled at the movie).

I would describe all of this as toxic crimes against the cinema. And this says nothing of the fact that Ed Gein – who had created a female body suit out of human skin – is the basis for all these characters. See Harold Schechter’s book. Representation is a very important issue but presentism is itself a very “problematic” and reductive to way to “interrogate” these issues. I guess we can’t like anything anymore. 

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