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a la Mod:
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.
Jessica Harper remarked on how strange it felt to return to the place where much of Phantom was filmed, and the fun of watching the movie with so many fans in attendance, applauding for each song as well as the cast and De Palma in the end credits. The crowd included a guy from Memphis dressed as the Phantom with mask/helmet and cape [see YouTube video below], and several people who had traveled from Winnipeg for the occasion. They clearly enjoyed taking photos around the building (much of it looking the same today, despite renovations through the years), and Harper was invited during the Q&A to come to a Phantom screening event in Winnipeg this October 28, with the Juicy Fruits/Beach Bums/Undead trio—Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (Harold Oblong)—all scheduled to be there.
Asked to share memories of the production, she talked about the energy that people like Hahn, Comanor, Elbling and George Memmoli brought to the set each day. Most touching, she talked the gentle support she received from William Finley throughout the shoot, making her debut film much easier than it might have been. She laughed about her "chicken dance" at the end of the "Special to Me" number ("my personal contribution to the choreography"), and recalled some conflict with costume designer Rosanna Norton, who didn't always welcome accessories Harper would add to her wardrobe, like the fedora she throws onto the stage in her "Special to Me" audition.
A couple of other memories: Steven Spielberg visiting the set in New York after the crew left Dallas, and besides Linda Ronstadt, her competition for the role of Phoenix including a then active singer named Lynn Carey, daughter of actor Macdonald Carey. Finally, asked about being directed by De Palma and other auteurs in her career (e.g., Dario Argento on Suspiria, Spielberg on Minority Report and Woody Allen on Love and Death and Stardust Memories), she noted that it always leads to a better experience than films where the director lacks a strong personal connection to the material, and isn't sure of what he wants.
Everybody has their own favorite song. I think a lot of people like "Old Souls," and not that I don't, but "Special to Me" is one of my favorite song-scenes in the film. I love the choreography of the dance. There's something just so enchanting about the whole thing. Do you remember how that came to be? The process of choreographing and all of that?
I kind of made it up.
Oh, yeah. There was that kind of configuration of the stage where the piece of stage going out into the audience, a strip of stage so I had to move. I had to get from A to B to C and back again so I had to figure out something, some kind of thing I could do that would get me where I needed to go doing some kind of dancey thing that would accommodate the necessity. The famous chicken dance.
I think I just came up with it and I just started messing around on stage and made it work. I had this fedora. I think the costume designer really wanted to kill me because I kept saying, "I think I should wear this," or "I think I should wear this." I really misbehaved with the costume designer including, I brought this fedora in. It was something I wore in real life. I went around with this little fedora at that time. I thought, “This will be a great prop. I'm going to take this hat and I'm going to throw it out.” I like to take credit for that scene in terms of the choreography and the hat.
Well, it's very good work.
I just love it. Even the moments of calm, I guess the chorus, where you're just sort of staring into the camera, it's so hypnotizing. Do you have a favorite song or a favorite scene?
I love that scene. I also love "Old Souls" too. I think it's a beautiful song.
Indeed! (Guillermo del Toro and his wife danced to it at their wedding.)
I was so lucky I got to sing these gorgeous songs, but that was called for, of course. I really liked "Old Soul" and "Special to Me."
Do you recall one scene as being really fun to shoot?
"The freak who killed Beef is up on the roof.” I just remember finding that really hard to say. The freak who killed Beef is up on the roof.
That is a bit of a tongue twister.
That's something you can say three times fast.... Doing "Special to Me" could not have been more fun. Oh! You know what was fun - except it was really hair-raising? The first day of shooting we did all that stuff that was at the beginning where I come in and audition and there's this scene that's kind of hilarious where, first of all, I'm going up this staircase and Finley comes up and we meet and there's a spark.
And then there's the scene, which was also the first day of shooting on the first movie I'd ever done. (DePalma) said, "Hit your mark!" I didn't know! “Who's my Marc and why do I have to hit him?” I didn’t know what they were saying.
There's another scene where I was like in tears all the time. When I say it was fun I would say in addition it was also completely terrifying, because I didn't know anything. I had to run into the casting room, where George Memmoli is standing wearing a velour shirt and huge turquoise trunks, like underpants.
I had to go in there and then the door closed and there's a certain amount of commotion and I come screaming, tearing out of the room again, saying, you know, indignant things because he's obviously jumping on top of every actress who goes into the so-called casting chamber. “I came here to sing!” I can't remember what I said, but some indignant, full of myself remark.
That was just funny because George is so funny and it was just, you know. And again, just so fun because I was getting the hang of what you were supposed to do on a movie set, which up to that point I had absolutely no idea about.
Brian De Palma tucked his napkin under his chin and said, “I woke up in the middle of the night with this idea for a script. In the last big scene, my lead character is photographing a movie set at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, my other story line is winding up on top of the tower.” Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow leaned in over their kale salads at Gotham Bar and Grill. De Palma, bearded and bulky at seventy-five, wore a safari jacket, as befits a Hollywood director; his clean-shaven, slimmer, much younger friends from the indie world bracketed him in navy suits. De Palma went on, “So I asked myself, ‘What movie could be shooting at the foot of the Eiffel Tower?’ And I said, ‘Vertigo’!”
Everyone grinned; the Hitchcock classic had left a heavy impress on such De Palma films as “Body Double” and “Dressed to Kill.” He went on, “ ‘Vertigo’ was originally a French novel, so I have to read it and figure out how, in the French version, did they kill the wife?”
On Thursday nights, the three directors, often joined by Wes Anderson, meet for dinner here or at Bar Pitti. One week in 2010, Baumbach and Paltrow filmed De Palma to preserve his stories for posterity. Over the years, they shaped their home movies into a documentary, “De Palma,” which just opened. Then they all went back to meeting simply to talk shop.
De Palma mentioned two enduring sources of chagrin: getting shot in the leg by the cops for hot-wiring a motor scooter when he was twenty, and casting the bronzed, wooden Cliff Robertson in “Obsession” in order to get the film made. (“That ridiculous tan!”) Then Paltrow threw out an idea: “How about a surveyor? Someone buries treasure as he’s watching through his lenses. That could be a De Palma.” De Palma chuckled noncommittally. Baumbach said, “Sometimes we come up with our concept of a De Palma movie and see if De Palma likes it.”
“We’re batting in the low .120s,” Paltrow said.
But De Palma said that their selection of clips from his movies for the documentary—cat-footed tracking shots, women being slashed to bits, cascades of blood—proved that they understood his predilections. “Watching it was like when you die and everything . . .” he revolved his hand, film-reel style, to indicate his life flashing before his eyes.
-Asked about Greetings and Hi, Mom!, De Palma says, "There are many things about them which I wish I had more of in my later films. They have a kind of spontaneity and life to them, because they're so rough, they're almost like sketches... I got very interested in developing a kind of a technique, and I went through about six films like that. Now I'm sort of moving back in the other direction, but I got very concerned with construction for many films. And sort of visualizations of stories and things like that. And I sort of got away from all this nutty, insane comedy that I used to do."
-Cavett: Who conceived the idea of a play in which the black cast attacked and raped members of the audience?
De Palma: I did. And I did it because there was a play I saw at the Public Theatre in which a black actor came out and assaulted the audience-- [starts pointing and mimicking] "You know what?!? [Scorsese is dying of inaudible laughter now] You're no good! You're no-- get out of here!!" And I see all these white people in front are going, [mimics sitting back and nodding in strong approval] "Yeah..." I couldn't believe this. [Scorsese continues to laugh, trying to control himself] We're sitting there being assaulted, abused, spit on, and they just said, "That's right! They're right!" You know, "We're no good-- right!" You know... they loved it!
Cavett: So you took the logical extension of that...
De Palma: No, it was, you know, big time of... Buck White, the year of those plays, where they just completely insulted the audience, and they just thought it was terrific.
-There is discussion about the different approaches/attitudes between De Palma and Scorsese regarding the types of films they each do. De Palma mentions that he has to have great (strong) actors, because his character scenes are so short/scarce, as compared to Scorsese, who explores scenes and dialogue with his actors, take after take. At one point, De Palma talks about the early cut he'd seen of New York, New York, saying it was "unbelievable at four and a half hours. Incredible." When asked by Cavett how so, De Palma continues, "Because, what's so fascinating about Marty is he takes all the variations on a theme in a scene and plays them all out. I mean that pick-up scene [to Scorsese], how long was that in the rough cut? [Scorsese says it was almost an hour] It was an hour long. The pick-up scene in the beginning of the movie, it was an hour long. And you can't believe it, it's like a ballet dancer jumping-- you can't believe they're going any higher. You know, he goes up, and up, and up, and up. [Whistles]"
19:20 Charlie Rose: Dream sequences.
19:23 Brian De Palma: I like dream sequences because I do a lot of dreaming, and I'm trying to make sense of them.
19:29 Charlie Rose: Do you really?
19:30 Brian De Palma: Yeah.
19:31 Charlie Rose: Well, but do you hire people to interpret your dreams?
19:34 Brian De Palma: No. But I get a lot of ideas from my dreams.
19:37 Charlie Rose: Do you really?
19:38 Brian De Palma: Yeah. If you go-- I don't know if this works for any of you guys, but if you're dealing with a problem and you go to sleep, somehow you work it out in your dream and you wake up and you're, ah-ha, that's it.
19:50 Charlie Rose: Does that happen to you?
19:53 Noah Baumbach: Yeah, versions of it. I don't put it in my movies.
19:58 Brian De Palma: Yeah, plus it's very stylized and you can do really crazy things.
Definitely go to the link above and read the entire column-- here's an excerpt:
Filmmaking has been my obsession since growing up in Laredo, Texas. I woke up thinking about movies. I fell asleep at night watching them. For me, De Palma was the apostle of cinematic technique. Delivering his sermons through the VHS tapes in my video store church. Pointing me in the direction of my own projection light. Bridging the gap between my cinematic fantasies and cinematic reality. This is how I watched Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface and Body Double. De Palma’s camera was a character; he embraced it -- these were works of art that were defining the medium and moving it forward. He was breaking and reinterpreting the form. There was constant strategic and spectacular movement. There was color, sexuality, absurdity. He was literally directing you, telling you where to see. Everything seemed to be at the service of the movie. The images were alive. Iconoclastic works of energy that inspired cinematic curiosity. This first film of his that I watched in the theater was The Untouchables. I was 14 or 15 and went back with my father half a dozen times. I found myself mesmerized by the production design, the lighting, the score -- the great spectacle. Another monolith arose from the ground and I realized that cinema was also a collaborative enterprise.
My first week at NYU in the fall of 1990, while walking in the Village, I saw Brian De Palma walking on the opposite side the street. We were on Sixth Avenue. He turned on to 8th Street towards Fifth Avenue. And I did the natural thing: I followed. There he was, walking like a regular person. Propelling himself forward, one foot in front of the other, like any other mortal. Movies stars always looking smaller in the flesh, but De Palma was even bigger. I felt like a small-time mobster casing a target, or a De Palma steadicam shot. This was my secret, privileged moment.
Here was the man who taught me about storyboarding in a Premiere Magazine article that published his early Macintosh boards for Casualties of War. He opened me up to the actual craft. The engineering. The planning -- skills that would later lead to a tiny career of me boarding my way through college for extra money, working on independent and graduate thesis films.
Once in New York, I practically lived at Bobst Library, going through their video library, discovering films my local video store didn’t carry. Dionysus in '69, Sisters, The Fury, Blow Out and Phantom of the Paradise. And then, of course more Hitchcock -- and then there it was, De Palma’s playful relationship with the past and nod to the masters that shaped him. Studio films with a Hollywood scope that defied and maybe even played the system. He was exploring the past but remaining a trailblazer that energized me in the present. Although I was an intensely shy kid, I found myself in full-on attack mode when a classmate would dismiss one of his films. The Untouchables and Scarface could never be contested. But if someone would dismiss Blow Out, I’d pounce. There was an innate sense that I needed to protect the masters and their extraordinary vision, especially those who I felt were under-appreciated. It was my duty.
A couple of years later, he was shooting Carlito’s Way down the street from my dorm in the West Village. They were working nights and I would just watch from the sidewalk -- as close as a PA would let me get. Pacino. De Palma and Stephen Burum. Fake rain. The biggest set I had ever seen. It was quite literally the realization of my dreams; an extraordinary sensation that overwhelmed me and cemented that I had chosen the right career ... however long and however painful that journey might be. This search for an identity that had always plagued me because of the nature of where I was from, went away. I only needed to be defined by my dreams and hopefully, resilience, not unlike what -- from the outside -- De Palma has shown throughout his career.
Alan Scherstuhl on Mission to Mars (2000)
Let's not oversell this: The critics who lambasted De Palma and Disney's big-budget turn-of-the-century astronaut epic had themselves an easy target. The script is weak, the characters flat, the first ten minutes a stiff bore, and the last twenty or so a palate-offending stew of 2001's beyond-the-infinite mysteries and Close Encounters' humans-meet-aliens playdate — with the origins of life on Earth explained in something like a multimedia planetarium show. But in between, De Palma romps, as clever and geeky as that inventor kid Keith Gordon played in Dressed to Kill, building complex new dazzlements from pieces in Kubrick's toybox: elegantly rotating spacecraft, misadventures outside the airlock, hyper-competent astronauts casually comfortable in zero-g.
De Palma's "stick jockeys" — their term — are underwritten, but they have soul, especially the married couple played by Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen, even if their idea of romantic accompaniment for a dizzying floating couple's dance is Van Halen. The camera (Stephen H. Burum served as d.p.) glides through three dimensions, in and out of the ships, with a fluidity we wouldn't see again until Gravity. The suspenseful problem-solving set pieces, meanwhile, are expertly shaped and -paced, building to a big-name death that also anticipates Alfonso Cuarón's 2013 Oscar winner. For a movie accused of being derivative, Mission to Mars is in the DNA of a crop of auteurist descendants, including The Martian and Interstellar. And De Palma, wittily, enlivens material that would seem tired in those: He uses the lag-time in interplanetary communication as an excuse to cut in cheery footage of characters who are actually in terrible danger, and the inevitable scene of space travelers watching recordings of people back home becomes one of the director's subtlest screen-splitting lulus.
One of Brian’s comments in the movie that struck me was his remark about Hitchcock, about how Hitchcock’s technique of returning to and reusing visual tropes was sort of dying with him, and how Brian saw himself in that tradition. As good filmmakers in your own rights, what did you guys think about that statement?
That’s our big takeaway from the movie as well, and it’s something that I don’t think we discovered until the editing of the film was finished. Brian sees this visual language, this visual storytelling that starts with Hitchcock. Naysayers claim it’s appropriation, but it’s not. If you look at it like a language or a dialect, it becomes a really compelling way of looking at Brian’s movies, because he’s doing it consistently. People have made movies that we think of as Hitchcockian, which means you make one or two things in that vein, a Body Heat, or a … the one with Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas —
Baumbach: Basic Instinct.
Paltrow: — these movies that are overtly Hitchcockian, but then that person will go on and make something totally different and not necessarily visually driven. But Brian is working in this language that he’s talking about, and we both thought that was a very exciting thing. It’s a very bold observation to make about yourself, but it’s so true, and it changes the way you think of Brian. It’s the ultimate definition for me.
Baumbach: Right, and it’s also been leveled against him, especially throughout his early career, as a negative. But Brian has no trouble owning it.
Do you think that his focus on a visual language rather than plot or scale is one of the reasons why he might have less mainstream name-brand recognition than some of his contemporaries from the ’70s, like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas?
Paltrow: I think a lot of peoples’ experiences with Brian is, I didn’t realize he made this, or he made that. It’s a very strong flavor that’s out there that people know — they just have to be nudged a little bit. And obviously, the people who like Brian and his movies tend to do so fervently.
BEFORE YOU GO SEE DE PALMA, THE NEW DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE DIRECTOR'S LIFE, HERE ARE A FEW THINGS TO KNOW
After a lifetime spent peering out from behind the camera, veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma becomes the subject of his own movie in De Palma, a documentary on his career made by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. In the film, released last Saturday, De Palma takes his disciples on a guided tour through his filmography, and with them the anonymous audiences and potential filmmakers who have been watching and learning from his movies for decades. If you’re already a De Palma connoisseur, then by all means ignore me and head straight to theaters for your dose of film history. But for anyone who hasn’t yet become acquainted with De Palma’s movies, the documentary presents an occasion to dive into one of Hollywood’s weirdest and most accomplished artists.
De Palma is a perfectionist when it comes to his work, and his obsession with film history and techniques can make understanding his movies a little daunting. He is also, god bless him, a total perv, and while his tendency toward a kind of ironic horniness only makes his movies more endearing as you watch them, I can see how it might be disorienting if the first film you see unexpectedly features an oft-nude woman murdered by a gigantic, phallic power drill. As a fan who stumbled her way into Brian De Palma appreciation without a road map, here are my humble suggestions for anyone who is ready to take the plunge for the first time.
The Black Dahlia Years
The most important advice I can give you as you start your adventures with De Palma is to avoid being born in the early ’90s, which dooms you to the youthful error of picking up the first new De Palma movie you see at your local video store. Fortunately, there are no video stores anymore, but the point is that if you’re like me, this path leads to watching The Black Dahlia at 13 — long before your developing mind can wrap itself around any coherent sense of irony, surreality, or forgiveness — and then vowing never to watch a De Palma movie again. I came around eventually, but The Black Dahlia is a movie that is For Fans Only if there ever was one; with a plot that never stops unfolding, the only actor who seems to even have a clue what’s going on is Fiona Shaw, who adjusts to the mess around her by going completely bonkers. Critics and 13-year-olds declared it incoherent at the time, and while De Palma stans might find camp value in the movie’s never-ending twists, nonsensical lesbianism, and A-list bad acting, first-time De Palma viewers would be better off starting with a movie that offers more straightforward pleasures. The same word of caution applies to Passion, the glossy corporate thriller De Palma made a couple years ago with Rachel McAdams, which is mostly good, utilizing Skype as a 21st-century cinematic device several years before Unfriended — but which is also unfortunately hampered by a deranged (and not in a Fiona Shaw–esque, good way) performance by the Swedish Dahlia, Noomi Rapace. As a rule, recency is not the best path into De Palma, and if you can sidestep the hurdle of starting out with movies that might be older than you are, you’re already over the biggest challenge.
If you want to get on board with a documentary in which a grandpa talks about nothing but his own movies for two hours, I’m going to send you back to 1976 to watch the horror classic Carrie. Carrie is, truthfully, a bit of an anomaly among De Palma’s films — while he has dabbled in just about every genre, De Palma’s preferred filmmaking style tends toward mysteries and thrillers like his hero, Alfred Hitchcock. The themes of the occult that make the explosion of violence in Carrie so mesmerizing don’t really recur anywhere else in De Palma’s decidedly secular cinema. But what Carrie does highlight for first-timers is the pinpoint precision of De Palma’s formal style, his queasy ability to express unstable mental states through sound and image — think of the kaleidoscopes and split screens that accompany the start of Carrie’s attack on her high school prom — and the thin balance between sincerity and insincerity. Stephen King’s source material and Sissy Spacek’s performance ground the film in the relatable outsider’s perspective, but De Palma unsettles any sense of normal identification, pushing scenes like Carrie’s endurance of her mother’s religious ecstasies to melodramatic extremes. In De Palma’s hands, part of the film’s horror comes from not being sure if you should be laughing, crying, or screaming at the unfolding tragedy of Carrie White.
Sisters and Carlito’s Way
Where to go after Carrie is a little tricky, because Carrie is so good that if you start looking for Carrie equivalents you’re just going to come back disappointed. Sisters is a solid early De Palma outing focused on an actress who either has an evil twin or a killer case of multiple personality disorder. It hews closer to De Palma’s usual external preoccupations like murder and doubles without burrowing to the same emotional depths as the more psychologically introspective Carrie. The Untouchables is famous, but it’s also straight-up bad — its constant winks to classic films and Al Capone might constitute kitsch if only it weren’t following such a bland team of lawmen. Skip it until you’re so invested in De Palma movies that even a De Palma movie starring Kevin Costner can’t bore you to an Eisenstein-homage-themed hell. On the other hand, Carlito’s Way marries De Palma’s ostentatious style with a thoughtful story examining cycles of crime and recidivism — but it’s kind of a dad movie. Either watch with your dad or become a dad and then watch it.