Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
Schrader's comments spread through Twitter Friday, leading him to delete the entire post, but the comments continued to spread over the weekend. Sometime soon, I will post a brief timeline, with quotes, between De Palma and Schrader. For now, here's an image of Schrader's FB post from March of 2015:
In 2011, Drago talked to Owen Williams at The Void about his role in The Untouchables:
[The Untouchables] was one of those films where even the things that went wrong went right. It was a difficult shoot in that it was period and we were actually shooting in the city so you have to periodise all those blocks. It was huge. And the studio didn’t know it was going to be a hit, and they actually called De Palma and shut it down. They said “okay we’ve seen the footage, you’ve got enough, we don’t want to spend any more money, that’s it, after the weekend you’re home”, and there were a whole load more scenes we were supposed to shoot.
That’s when they went and shot the Odessa Steps sequence in the train station, with a load of raw film stock that De Palma had stored up. That wasn’t even in the script. We were supposed to shoot at the race track and a lot of other stuff, and he said ‘We can’t shoot any of that stuff, so everybody pack up, but in the meantime I’m going to shoot my version of the Battleship Potemkin scene with all this film I’ve stolen’…
The first scene we shot was where the little kid gets blown up. So I’m outside waiting on the street where they’re lighting, and some older woman comes up with a little boy and asks for a picture, so I put my arm around the little boy and all that. And the next day in the newspaper I found that the picture was there! And the little boy was like Nitti’s great great grandson.
The guy who was my stand-in was the great grandson of a guy who’d had a Nitti contract out on him! And his grandfather had hidden out in the middle of Illinois until Nitti had died, and survived the hit. But even after that, he got ill and he was in the hospital, and the nurses complained about him because he was sleeping with a pistol under his pillow, because he was convinced he was still gonna get whacked!
I got to know the Nitti family. They still live in the Chicago area and they have grocery stores and businesses: regular businesses; they’re not mob connected anymore! They called the hotel where I was staying, which was the actual hotel that had been owned by Capone and Nitti during that period (in fact the very phone booth where Machine Gun Jack McGill was killed was right outside my door). I was down in the lobby and the concierge came over to say that the Nitti family would be by to pick me up at 8 o’clock. Nobody asked if I actually wanted to go… It was an offer I couldn’t refuse! But it would have been too interesting an adventure to turn down anyway. So at eight o’clock I’m down in the lobby and a limousine pulls up and a guy gets out and introduces himself as someone who works for the Nitti family, and we drove around every blues club in Chicago, and at every one it was like royalty had arrived. ‘The Nitti family is here!’ It was great fun but they were making me a little nervous because they gradually started treating me like I really was Frank Nitti. They made sure my back was to the wall so I could see everybody, and all the young Italian turks would come by to pay their respects, and they’d all say “Sooooo, playin’ Uncle Frank huh? Lookin’ good, lookin’ good…” It gave me a bit of an insight into what it would have been like and what had gone on…
They didn’t mind Frank being portrayed as such a villain; the legend is so big. They had to move Nitty’s grave several times because people kept digging it up to make sure he really was dead; they were so scared of him. Only the family knew where his grave was for a while. I wore a white suit in the movie because we thought of him as the angel of death. I talked to a very elderly gentleman once who’d been a policeman undercover, and he said that Nitti had found him out, and tied him up in a basement and put a gun in his mouth and waited to see if he would sweat. Nitti had a very famous saying: ‘I never killed a man who wasn’t afraid to die’. So if he’d sweated he would’ve been killed, but he didn’t so Nitti said ‘oh okay, he’s not afraid’ so he let him go.
My mother never quite forgave me for killing Sean Connery. Mom, I had to! They paid me!
Despite De Palma’s best efforts with lighting and art direction, the photography can’t shake off the bland clarity of much low-budget, digitally shot cinema. But as happens all too often with contemporary cinema, that’s mistaking the wrapping for the actual gift. Domino proves a galvanising experience in regards to the current movie scene, as pure an auteurist artefact as any I’ve seen and one that, in its way, recalls many a late B movie excursion from the major talents of a much earlier filmmaking generation: Fritz Lang or Edgar G. Ulmer would have entirely understood Domino.
De Palma uses Peter Skavlan’s script as a springboard for suspense sequences composed with a lucid sense of staging and context that’s close to miraculous compared to the vast numbers of barely competent directors around today. Even seemingly serviceable early scenes prove charged with careful investment of meaning. One of De Palma’s most accustomed and compulsive motifs – a man who misses an important detail because he’s too wrapped up in a woman – is quickly deployed as Christian’s fatal failure to bring his gun is put down to his being drawn back into bed by the barista he’s boffing. De Palma cuts to Lars smoking silent and alone in his kitchen, seemingly a portrait of a different kind of angst: we’ve seen Lars with his limping wife Hanne (Paprika Steen) in homey security, one into which Christian is regularly invited without having or wanting, but as the story unfolds it’s revealed that Lars, like his partner, has his mind on a woman and not on the world immediately about him. When Christian dines with Lars and Hanne in their kitchen, Hanne shows Christian a magazine ad for a dream vacation: De Palma frames the seated man, the standing woman, and the large crucifix on the wall to composite a vision of competing modes of existence, domesticated life as a perpetual scene suspended between rigid internal faiths and far-flung fantasies. You can feel Christian all but cringing at the faint touch of its weight.
Christian learns later that Lars was having an affair with Alex, a turn that genuinely shocks Christian nonetheless as he had no idea about it, the presence of such enigma right next to him outweighing the machinations of spies and fanatics around him. Domino revolves around two sequences of expansive and carefully layered suspense-mongering: the first is Christian and Lars’ pursuit of Tarzi and the second a climax as Christian and Alex try to foil one of Al Din’s intended terrorist attacks in Spain. The first sees De Palma reverting to his classic blueprint of taking some Hitchcock quotes – the spiralling staircase and drainpipe-dangling of Vertigo (1958), the stepping-stone zoom on a gory sight of The Birds (1963) – and improvising around them jazz-like. De Palma’s more individual sense of crisis then comes into play, as something terrible and impending is made obvious to the audience but only unveiling itself to his protagonists as events outpace their receptivity. Christian beholds the mangled result of Tarzi’s vengeful handiwork inflicted on some pathetic Al Din operative whilst Tarzi calmly tries to work his escape from his handcuffs under Lars’ nose.
Colossal close-ups link the corporeal savagery of Tarzi's handiwork with the silently knowing glaze to his eyes, plunging us deep into a zone of near-atavistic vengefulness and determination the cops can barely comprehend at this point. It takes raw loss of both a friend and innate self-respect to galvanise Christian, who spends much of the film looking like a waning golden boy faced with proof of his own ridiculousness, into the potent warrior such a quest requires. His chase of Tarzi over roofing shingles has an almost languorous quality as the two men are obliged to be more careful than speedy, Lars watching his partner wane and bleed from a helpless vantage. The storyline revolving around a clash between terrorists and state power with a vigilante and civic guardians caught in between feels, perhaps inevitably given the film’s delay, ever so fractionally past its prime. Pearce’s portrayal of a strutting, arrogant yuppie in patriot garb hits a note that’s been sounded quite a few times in the post-9/11 critique.
And yet the direction De Palma takes it in proves almost maliciously keen to our moment when events like the Christchurch Mosque shootings evince just the sort of psychopathic showmanship staged as a social media event De Palma depicts here. Much as he signalled with less finesse and wit in Redacted (2007), De Palma approaches the fallout of the War on Terror with an eager comprehension of a fight on multiple plains of action, enabled by technological advancements that allow simultaneity of being and seeing. Al Din’s auteurist approach to terrorism is to carefully stage them with body cams and drone photography to make them orchestrated events of propagandistic violence. De Palma correlates his own directorial vision with such excursions, as Al Din coaches a hijab-wrapped starlet, Fatima (Sachli Gholamalizad), for a red carpet debut, albeit one where she’s required to machine gun arriving stars at a Dutch film festival, before detonating an explosive vest for a big bang finish, bringing death to the celebrities and being one at the same time. Al Din watches from on high, footage beamed back to him allowing him to see Fatima's pained yet determined war face in the same frame as the fear and horror of her victims -- an image De Palma might as well have been working towards his whole life.
The captured footage is then edited into a tight unit of cinematic impact for free dissemination online, an agitprop creation that long outlives its makers, allowing the deed to escape the ephemeral and the specific moment to become an ongoing act of radical violence. All barriers between political act and art have vanished. By contrast Martin, who in De Palma’s paradigm can be seen more as an eager studio executive, uses networked screens to torment Tarzi into cooperating by letting him watch as Martin browbeats his son. Christian and Alex untangle the means of Al Din’s seeming ability to stage such events at will as based in deception and irony – the tomatoes that save Christian’s life are also a means of smuggling weapons. But Tarzi has a deep instinctual and procedural advantage over them, an advantage that Martin trusts in through his believe that revenge is the great motivator. Ebouaney’s presence as Tarzi imbues Domino with some interesting implied political perspective, as it subverts the familiar paradigm of white westerner reprisal for Islamic extremist carnage by noting that people in North Africa have suffered much more at the hands of such movements.
At the same time De Palma regards Tarzi as a monstrous by-product himself, as a man pushed to realise the possibility within himself for intimate and sadistic violence to expiate grief and rage, slicing off fingers and drowning a restaurateur in his own saucepan full of soup: he’s reminiscent of such storied De Palma protagonists as Winslow Leach, Carrie White, and Tony Montana. In contrast to them however he doesn’t hold the centre of the narrative. There’s also the attendant irony of oblique forms of retaliation: Tarzi’s programme of payback stirring an equal and attendant desire for Christian and especially Alex to get even with him. Christian soon finds that a superior who seems to have it in for him is actually one of Martin’s enablers. He and Alex follow the thread to Belgium and then Spain, proving their mettle as partners as they cut loose on some punkish miscreants, establishing Alex’s highly effectual way with a kick to the balls. Domino has many of the qualities old B-movies often wielded with careless gusto. The to-the-point narrative feels almost radical and certainly refreshing in its unfussy cohesion, the directness of its themes and characterisations. The revelation of Alex and Lars’ affair is offered not to implicate some mind-bending twist but to lend new volatility to the way character and plot interact.
The finale, where Al Din tries again to orchestrate a suicide bombing as media event in a bullring, sees multiple plains of action and interlocking events staged with ingenious verve, Christian battling Al Din and operatives on high whilst Alex tries to intervene with the bomber below, action bathed in saturating blue neon from a huge logo sign that renders life-and-death struggle a form of branded content. It’s truly striking how sleek and integral this is compared to the superficial but disjointed imitation of De Palma’s kind of high style in something like Atomic Blonde (2017). De Palma again explores variations on some of his earlier set-pieces, particularly the opening of Femme Fatale (2001) and the finales of Blow Out (1981) and Snake Eyes (1998), with evil defeated by a combination of real grit and a dash of absurdist good fortune. The cycle of revenge moves on another notch, if perhaps with the hope of catharsis, but the art of murder continues to resound across cyberspace to an unknowable end. It could be said that Domino crashes to a halt just as it’s really gathering momentum, but again the pithiness of the film, the absence of narrative gimmicks and overworked dramatics, feels more like a plus in the end. Also it’s a potent reminder of what genuine film style looks like. De Palma might be one of the last remaining filmmakers who still readily and casually shows up the difference between merely showing events in a televisual manner or assembling prettily photographed bits, but actually turning them into a truly cinematic, aesthetic event.
There are many things in our world that are illegal—for example, the murders committed by terrorists. They nevertheless happen. There are others that, though they’re legal, are unthinkable—for example, movies that depict the cruel determination and the shocking desire to murder in a theatrical way of Islamic terrorists. De Palma is the only one of the famously transgressive directors of the once famously transgressive liberal movements in the arts who actually has transgressed...
...The extraordinary moments come when De Palma is in his element—when he can think about the relationship between technology, entertainment, and morality. He uses his split screens to show that behind suicide bombers are people who play movie director with people’s lives and whose purpose is not only to terrify, to use the media against the democratic countries they’re supposed to serve, but also as advertising. To glamorize evil.
De Palma’s humanism shows in his constructing a plot intended to destroy this attempt at glamorization. He acknowledges our public paralysis and lack of serious, believable public speeches by politicians and intellectuals. Instead, he moves to family and friendship, to love and loyalty as motives of action. In this way, the dignity of human action is affirmed, even when faced with the anonymous, impersonal terrorist threat.
At the same time, he shows the potential for tragedy in our societies and wars, with his trademark sophistication. Far from the liberal bromide that violence is never the answer, De Palma makes a movie that insists if you want to grieve for your losses, if you want therapy, you should do justice. The political character of the action of the plot serves to make up for the impersonal character of terrorism—the victims can experience it as random, as though it were a cosmic accident, not an act of war.
De Palma’s everymen achieve a dignity only possible in genre movies—they take personally what happens to them in a plot that allows a resolution. They don’t need to escape into fantasy to avoid the ugliness of the world and have an incoherent happy end simply tacked on. Blockbusters no longer dare to tell such stories. So it makes sense Domino was beset with production and distribution difficulties, almost silenced before it even reached an audience. His political incorrectness is serious, and so his art is marginalized.
I like to ask actors about the earliest projects in their careers, but with your filmography, I can’t quite tell which came first: The Fury or Who’s Watching the Kids?
The Fury?! [Explodes into laughter.] I can’t believe you pulled that out of your ass!
I do enjoy my research.
Well, The Fury… Basically, I was a pushy extra, and I got fired.
Oh, really? That I did not know.
Yeah, I was so young and naive. [Laughs.] We thought we were gonna be movie stars! The whole time we were there, we were, like, “Look, there’s a camera there!” And we’d walk in front of it. We were so bad! The assistant director told me, “I was at the dailies, and we looking at them, and there you were over and over and over again. Brian said, ‘Who’s that guy?! Get rid of him!” But ironically, he then came with Amy Irving to Second City and saw an improv show, and John Cassavetes came, too, and it was all okay…or at least it wasn’t too bad! But anyway, my first real film was Thief.
Which is not a bad way to officially start your film career.
No, Michael Mann was the coolest! By the way, as far as getting fired from The Fury, when I did the Letterman show, they got the film, and we counted how many times you could see me on camera. It was, like, four times within a minute clip! [Laughs.]
And the gag that we didn’t end up doing was that we were going to call Brian DePalma on the show, and I was going to apologize to him! Oh, boy, the pure nerve and bravado of the young actor…
Their plan is to have her elected prom queen and then humiliate her publicly. What we see that they don’t see is the depth of Carrie’s desire to be accepted by them. Her joy at having Tommy, the most popular boy in the class, ask her to the prom and at becoming prom queen transforms her; her home life is so horrible that this is her first taste of feeling beautiful, and she’s a radiant Cinderella. De Palma, a master sadist, prolongs her moments of happiness; he slows the action down to a trance while we wait for the trap to be sprung, knowing that it will unloose her bottled-up telekinetic anger. It’s a beautiful plot—a teen-age Cinderella’s revenge. “Carrie” becomes a new trash archetype, and De Palma, who has the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies, points up its archetypal aspects by parodying the movies that have formed it—and outclassing them...
...The director James Whale worked sophisticated parody into some of his horror films, such as “The Old Dark House,” in 1932, and “The Bride of Frankenstein,” in 1935, but I don’t think that before “Carrie” anyone had ever done a satiric homage to exploitation films. Who but De Palma would think of using old-movie trash, and even soft-core pornos, to provide “heart” for a thriller? The banal teenage-movie meanness that the kids show toward Carrie gets the audience rooting for her, and it becomes the basis for her supernatural vengeance. This is the first time a De Palma picture has had heart—which may explain why De Palma, despite his originality, has never made it into the big winners’ circle before. I liked the surreal sophomoric humor of his 1968 X-rated “Greetings,” with its draft-dodger hero; the style was deliberately offhand. In those days, De Palma didn’t move the camera much; he used a lot of single-camera setups that went on for several minutes—he let the actors play out their scenes. When he did move the camera, sometimes the movement was itself a gag—a parody of film “magic.” His early films were cheaply made and badly distributed, but even so they didn’t score with young audiences as they should have scored. Maybe this was the audiences’ fault as much as his. Like some others of us, he probably assumed that counterculture movie-lovers had much hipper tastes than they turned out to have; they didn’t go for the old patriotic, pro-war sentimentality, but they wanted more emotion and romance than De Palma, with his sense of the ridiculous, provided. However, he was always primarily a creator of comedy, an entertainer, so if the audience wouldn’t change, he had to.
By the time of “Obsession,” De Palma had dropped his theatrical play-out-the-scene style; rock had unified the wild “Phantom of the Paradise,” but the camera itself did it for “Obsession.” He made a romantic movie without, as far as I can judge, a single romantic impulse; he was proving that he could tell a fluid, rhythmed story—that he could master camera magic. It was all calculation—camera movements designed to make an audience swoon. If the De Palma spirit was barely in evidence in “Obsession,” that was because the romantic conception operated on only one level; it lacked humor—this is where Paul Schrader, its scenarist, is weak (a weakness compensated for by the director and actors in Schrader’s “Taxi Driver”). And “Obsession” lacked good, cheap dirt. In “Greetings,” Allen Garfield had hawked stag films; De Niro was a voyeur making Peep Art films in both “Greetings” and De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!” After the rarefied phoniness of “Obsession,” De Palma has come back to his own exploitation themes in “Carrie;” the voyeur has got into the girls’ locker room this time, bringing that romanticizing, hypnotic camera with him. De Palma was always a sexual wit; now he’s a voluptuary wit, with the camera coming very close to Sissy Spacek’ s body, and with closeups of her wraithlike, hair-veiled face. We know her skin better than we know our own.
The technique is so absorbing that I don’t think I blinked during “Carrie.” I assume that a virtuoso combination of the spiky editing of Paul Hirsch and the special effects by Gregory M. Auer is what gives us images such as Carrie’s eye exploding a car. Mario Tosi’s slithering cinematography seemed especially effective in Carrie’s California-gothic home, and I assume that the art directors, William Kenny and Jack Fisk, made that possible. The music for “Obsession” was so emotive that the picture drowned in its score; the Pino Donaggio music for “Carrie” is modest and inoffensive, though more derivative than one might like. There are only a few places where the film seems to err in technique. The speeded-up sound when the high-school boys are trying on tuxedos is a dumb, toy effect. And at the prom, when Carrie sees red, the split-screen footage is really bad: the red tint darkens the image, and there’s so much messy action going on in the split sections that the confusion cools us out. But the film is built like a little engine, and it gets to us.
For a sophisticated, absurdist intelligence like De Palma’s, there’s no way to use camera magic except as foolery. He’s uncommitted to anything except successful manipulation; when his camera conveys the motion of dreams, it’s a lovely trick. He can’t treat a subject straight, but that’s all right; neither could Hitchcock. If De Palma were an artist in another medium—say, fiction or poetry—he might be a satirist with a high reputation and a small following. Everything in his films is distanced by his persistent adolescent kinkiness; he’s gleefully impersonal. Yet, working in movies, he’s found his own route to a mass audience: his new trash heart is the ultimate De Palma joke.
This mixture of The Phantom of the Opera and Faust isn't enough for De Palma. He heaps on layers of acid-rock satire and parodies of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Psycho, and The Picture of Dorian Gray—and the impacted plots actually function for him. The film is a one-of-a-kind entertainment, with a kinetic, breakneck wit. The cinematographer, Larry Pizer, keeps the images full to overflowing, and the set designer, Jack Fisk, supplies striking takeoffs of the frenzied decor of German silent films.
De Palma has been learning how to make every move of the camera signify just what he wants it to, and now he has that knowledge at his fingertips. The pyrotechnics and the whirlybird camera are no longer saying “Look at me”; they give the film authority. When that hooting owl fills the side of the screen and his head spins around, you’re already in such a keyed-up, exalted state that he might be in the seat next to you. The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, working with his own team of assistants, does night scenes that look like paintings on black velvet so lush you could walk into them, and surreally clear daylight vistas of the city—you see buildings a mile away as if they were in a crystal ball in your hand. The colors are deep, and not tropical, exactly, but fired up, torrid. Blow Out looks a lot like The Fury; it has that heat, but with greater depth and definition. It’s sleek and it glows orange, like the coils of a heater or molten glass—as if the light were coming from behind the screen or as if the screen itself were plugged in. And because the story centers on sounds, there is a great care for silence. It’s a movie made by perfectionists (the editor is De Palma’s longtime associate Paul Hirsch, and the production design is by Paul Sylbert), yet it isn’t at all fussy. De Palma’s good, loose writing gives him just what he needs (it doesn’t hobble him, like some of the writing in The Fury), and having Zsigmond at his side must have helped free him to get right in there with the characters.
De Palma has been accused of being a puppeteer and doing the actors’ work for them. (Sometimes he may have had to.) But that certainly isn’t the case here. Travolta and Nancy Allen are radiant performers, and he lets their radiance have its full effect; he lets them do the work of acting too. Travolta played opposite Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and they seemed right as a team; when they act together, they give out the same amount of energy—they’re equally vivid. In Blow Out, as soon as Jack and Sally speak to each other, you feel a bond between them, even though he’s bright and soft-spoken and she looks like a dumb-bunny piece of fluff. In the early scenes, in the hospital and the motel, when the blonde, curly-headed Sally entreats Jack to help her, she’s a stoned doll with a hoarse, sleepy-little-girl voice, like Bette Midler in The Rose—part helpless, part enjoying playing helpless. When Sally is fully conscious, we can see that she uses the cuddly-blonde act for the people she deals with, and we can sense the thinking behind it. But then her eyes cloud over with misery when she knows she has done wrong. Nancy Allen takes what used to be a good-bad-girl stereotype and gives it a flirty iridescence that makes Jack smile the same way we in the audience are smiling. She balances depth and shallowness, caution and heedlessness, so that Sally is always teetering—conning or being conned, and sometimes both. Nancy Allen gives the film its soul; Travolta gives it gravity and weight and passion.
I keep seeing movies I think are interesting that nobody is praising. Three Kings, in particular, got some good reviews, but nothing like it deserved. I thought Mission to Mars had some extraordinary sequences in it. I'm always attacked for liking Brian De Palma so much, and it's a very uneven, erratic movie. But about half of it is superb, and I can't understand why more people didn't recognise that.