LAURA BEERMAN DELVES DEEP INTO THE WAYS DE PALMA SPLITS THE SCREEN
For the past few weeks, 25 Years Later has been running a series of article essays about the cinema of Brian De Palma. The latest of these, by Laura Beerman, is one of the very best. Titled, "De Palma: Tell the Truth | But Tell it Split," and using subhead quotes about perspectives and ways of seeing from De Palma's documentary The Responsive Eye, Beerman discusses the ways in which De Palma presents multiple truth perspectives simultaneously. "My personal favorites are his voyeuristic 80s thrillers including Blow Out and Dressed to Kill, Beerman offers. "It’s in these films that de Palma’s pin really leaves you wriggling, layering detail on both sides of the frame and dispersing narrative to the point of near breakdown until we come to the central point: when De Palma tells the truth—like Emily Dickinson—he tells it slant, or in his case split. After all, what is 'The Truth'? Can we ever really know it and are we always better off when we do?"
Beerman's essay is illustrated with many frame captures from De Palma's films, so it is best to read it as-is on the 25YL site. That said, here's one small passage:
In one segment of The Responsive Eye, de Palma’s traveling camera captures a perspective shift—a complex work of pointillism that appears to change from 3D to 2D based on the proximity of the observer. Famed art theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim touches on the shift that happens to the witness spectator: “Partly you are the victim of it, partly you are the rebel against it.” Because in a de Palma film, even a documentary, perspective changes everything.
De Palma’s witnesses are both victim and rebel. The more their positions shift relative to their original “seeing,” the harder it is to know what’s real. In Blow Out, a past tragedy drives Jack Terry to become a sound engineer who ultimately records a fateful car accident. Sally too starts as a victim. When she realizes she’s been duped by Manny she rebels, shifting from unwitting participant to truth seeker. The closer Jack and Sally get, the harder it gets to prove the truth as McRyan’s killer steals the incriminating film. Jack tears his studio apart, only to find his sound library—the entirety of his professional life—has been erased. Any hopes of a stable state are gone. De Palma captures that through two other techniques: spinning panoramas and a final overhead shot of Jack surrounded by whirring machines, piles of blank tape and empty cases.
It’s an almost pointillistic vision, like the one at the MOMA. We have detail. We have perspective. But we don’t have the truth, not a way to prove it anyway. Certainty is replaced with shock, disbelief, and betrayal. The obvious detour here is Blow–Up, the 1966 Antonioni film about a photographer who, in developing his film, discovers he’s captured a murder. To uncover the truth, he enlarges the image until there’s no image left, only pixel and shadow. When he returns to the crime scene, the body is gone.