DISCUSSING 'HI, MOM!' & WHAT IT MEANS TO THINK OF DE PALMA AS POLITICAL FILMMAKER
At tiff.net, Adam Nayman anticipates the July 7th screening of Brian De Palma's Hi, Mom! at TIFF Lightbox by engaging Chris Dumas in a discussion via email "about some of the different ways to look at Brian De Palma." This is a great read, with a terrific discussion, and also this intriguing intro by Nayman:
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.
And here is the first part of the email discussion (although, really, you'll just want to go read the whole thing right now)...
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.