OCTOBER 26, 1984
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
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a la Mod:
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.
Indeed, watching Palmetto, it is easy to see there is much there for De Palma to play with: a straight arrow reporter whose moral compass is compromised after being framed, staged kidnappings, ransom notes, drop offs, bodies in trunks, recordings of conversations, erotic frisking for wires, femme fatales, plenty of sex, and wigs galore. The film even opens with Woody Harrelson's somewhat Carlito-like stance toward a judge after his conviction is overturned.
Definitely could be fun for De Palma. For a bit more context regarding Schlöndorff's film version, which was not so well-reviewed upon initial release, here's Peter Rainer's review from 1998:
Palmetto is a film noir set in a torpid seaside Florida town. It's based on the James Hadley Chase novel Just Another Sucker, and when we first see Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson), he fits that moniker exactly. He looks dazed and confused--a sucker incarnate. Suckers are, of course, integral to noir--they provide the blood supply for the genre's predatory vamps. It's been said that a thriller is only as good as its chief villain, and, in the same way, most noirs are only as good as their suckers.
Palmetto has a good sucker but not much else. Harrelson is everything one could hope for, but he's surrounded by a cast, including Elisabeth Shue, Michael Rapaport, Chloe Sevigny and an underused Gina Gershon, which appears to have seen too many noirs--bad noirs. Their elaborate machinations are so transparently base that they might as well be camping it up for the cameras. The trick to getting noir right is to play it absolutely straight; the looniness and the greed may appear absurd to us, but they have to be deathly serious to their practitioners. Palmetto isn't a takeoff on noir, and yet it has that unintended effect. It appears to be winking at the audience when, instead, it should be trying to stare it down.
Part of the phoniness of Palmetto can be traced to its director, Volker Schlsndorff (The Tin Drum), being a German director adapting a novel by a British pulp novelist who wrote about America without ever spending any time in it. (Chase was the pseudonym for Rene Raymond.) There's an uncomfortably twice-removed quality about the movie. Screenwriter E. Max Frye (Something Wild) sets out all the proper pulp/noir place settings, but Schlsndorff doesn't really provide a meal.
The film's press notes carry an interesting quote from the director: "My friend (filmmaker) Bertrand Tavernier asked me why I didn't ever make the kind of movies I like to watch myself, a real 'movie' movie. I decided it was time to take a break from the heavier subject matter and have a little fun." But it's one thing to be a fan of noir, quite another to render it effectively. Palmetto is a fan's movie, and it has the kind of gaga unreality that a giddy cineast might bring to it.
Harrelson has always had a look of sozzled lewdness that makes him perfect for roles ranging from Larry Flynt to the deranged vet in Wag the Dog. But Harrelson's lewdness doesn't have many levels. What you see is often what you get. In Palmetto, he brings some softness into his usual slouch. Being a victim becomes him. His Harry Barber is a journalist released after two years in prison; it's been discovered he was framed for trying to expose civic corruption. Angry, aimless, he drifts into a kidnap-for-ransom scheme engineered by Rhea Malroux (Shue), a curvy bundle apparently married to a wheezing millionaire (Rolf Hoppe) with a trampy daughter (Sevigny). Harry becomes the bad guy he was mistakenly believed to be, and he can't quite live up to the billing. When the police, attempting to track down the kidnapers, put Harry on the job as their press liaison, he finds himself double-whammied. Once a sucker, always a sucker.
If the filmmakers had concentrated on this comedy of suckerdom, they might have come up with something piquant. (Harrelson certainly was up for it.) But Harry is surrounded by scenery-chewers. Shue is the worst offender, but Rapaport, playing Rhea's husband's bodyguard, is a close second. He's not playing a bad guy; he's an actor playing a bad guy.
Shue impressed a lot of people in Leaving Las Vegas because she brought a sensual bleariness to her patrician cool; she was a clean-cut slut with a heart of fool's gold. She hasn't been nearly as effective since. As the brainy scientist in The Saint, this Radcliffe graduate actually seemed rather dim; in Deconstructing Harry, she was part of the female foliage with which Woody Allen adorned himself. In Palmetto, spilling out of an assortment of clingy dresses, Shue is so unconvincing in her wiles that you can't imagine even a stupe like Harry getting stung.
Palmetto might not have been appreciably better even if it were more skillful. At this point in film history, it's not enough anymore just to go through the same old noir paces. Something new must be added to the mix. That's what John Dahl attempted to do with Red Rock West and, to a lesser extent, The Last Seduction. It's what Curtis Hanson does so successfully in L.A. Confidential--he dramatizes his own ambivalence about the pulp conventions he expertly executes. If Schlsndorff has any feelings about noir, you'd never know them from Palmetto. He's just happy to be orchestrating the nastiness. But we've heard this score before.
The conversation event that took place at the festival last weekend opened with a montage of scenes from De Palma's films, scored to Ennio Morricone's music from Casualties Of War, which Baldwin mentioned during the conversation. The East Hampton Star's Mark Segal wrote an article about the event:
During their conversation, Mr. Baldwin noted the many stars Mr. De Palma worked with at the apex of their careers, among them Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, and John Travolta, who starred in the 1981 film “Blow Out,” which was shown Saturday at the East Hampton Cinema.
“I wrote ‘Blow Out’ after ‘Dressed to Kill,’ which was a big hit, so suddenly I was a genius,” said the director. After Mr. Travolta signed on to the project, the budget went from $6 million to $16 million, “and everything got bigger.”
Mr. De Palma said that making a $5 million movie is more or less the same for him as making a $100 million film. “Obviously there are more people around,” he said. He added that to do the elaborate set pieces for which he is known, he needed the top technicians, and they are in Hollywood. “They always said about Orson Welles that he lost the ability to use all those great technicians, and it showed in his work. I think that’s true.”
While Mr. De Palma has written many of his own films, he stressed the value of also working “in other people’s ballparks. That’s why I’m attracted to really great writers. It enlarges you because you have to tell their story with the techniques you’ve developed yourself.”
Of “Carlito’s Way,” which was written by David Koepp, he said “I was watching it at the Berlin Film Festival and I said to myself that I can’t make a better picture than this. And it wasn’t a big success. It killed me. I decided I was going to go out and make a success.”
Soon after, he heard from his agent, Mike Ovitz, that Sydney Pollock, who was working on “Mission Impossible,” wanted out of the project. “So Mike asked me if I would be interested. And I said, ‘Tom Cruise! ‘Mission Impossible’? You bet!’ It was the biggest hit of my career.”
Though often cited for his stylistic ingenuity, Mr. De Palma stressed the importance of actors. “You’ve got to get great actors to make these stories work, because if the actors aren’t good, you aren’t good.”
Mr. Baldwin said, “None of your peers — Steven, Marty, George — has anything on you when you shoot these things you shoot,” referring to his elaborate set pieces, dramatic camera angles and compositions, panning and tracking shots, and precisely choreographed long takes.
“Needless to say, Marty and Steven are very skilled at those kind of sequences,” said Mr. De Palma. “I think the difference is that Steven always used the same composer, John Williams. And Marty uses rock and roll basically. I used a variety of the best composers who were writing during my era, and that may be why my sequences stand out. Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘Casualties of War’ will tear your heart out.”
Mr. De Palma has also worked with many of the top cinematographers. Asked if he preferred shooting and cutting film to working digitally, he said, “I’m a science brat. I love the new technology. When I shoot digitally, the key thing is to get a cameraman who knows how to light it. It doesn’t have to look like that brown crap you see all the time.”
As much as he is recognized for his psychological thrillers, Mr. De Palma is also known, and sometimes criticized, for his depiction of violence. He discussed his battles with the old motion picture ratings board, which started with the masturbation scene in the shower in “Dressed to Kill.”
“Scarface” was X-rated at first. He made a few cuts, sent it back, and it was returned with an X. He made several subsequent cuts of violent material without appeasing the board. “I finally said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘It’s the clown getting shot!’ The clown getting shot? It was too much.” Over the objections of the studio head, he resubmitted the original cut to the full board, and it was eventually approved.
Of the scene in “Scarface” where Mr. Pacino appears with his gun and says, “Say hello to my little friend,” Mr. De Palma explained why so many people are shot in it. “When we went on the set to film that sequence, the set burned down. Then, when Al was using that gun, he grabbed it by the barrel, and it was so hot he burned himself severely.”
“The set burned, then Al burned?” interjected Mr. Baldwin.
“He went to the hospital for two weeks. So here I had a set, no Al, but I had a lot of Colombians. So we spent those two weeks shooting Colombians.” Of Mr. Pacino, he said, “Al can hold the screen with that incredible face and voice; you just sit there riveted. And he’s not only a great actor, he moves so gracefully.”
He cited Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” as two recent films he admires. “We’ve got some good directors working,” he said, moments before his daughter, Piper De Palma, came onstage to give him the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Early in Domino, Copenhagen cop Nikolaj Coster-Waldau bungles a routine call-out and gets his partner stabbed. As he’s dangling from a gutter à la James Stewart in Vertigo, accompanied by a lush orchestral Pino Donaggio score, this seemingly typical Scandi-noir is revealed as unmistakably the work of itinerant ex-‘movie brat’ Brian De Palma. A found footage sequence combines elements from Redacted (De Palma’s most interesting 21st century work) and Femme Fatale (his flat-out craziest/most fun) as a chic, brainwashed terrorist livestreams a gun attack/suicide bombing on the red carpet of a swanky European film festival. Sadly, thanks to budget cuts and a never-really-there script, Domino proceeds to fall over, but flashes of genius make it a more interesting watch than the professional plod of most direct-to-anything-but-a-cinema thrillers.
Well, I'm interested in new styles of telling stories. I do have a kind of horror film I'd like to make. And also diferent genres, and an adaptation of an old classic noir picture called Palmetto.
Here's more from the event page:
We start the evening with Mary Harron’s 2000 cult classic American Psycho starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, an investment banker who attempts to hide his serial killer impulses as he descends into hedonistic violence, in a deeply satirical look at 1980s New York.
The second movie of the evening, 1984’s Body Double, is cited throughout Bret Easton Ellis’s original American Psycho novel as Patrick Bateman’s favourite film (Bateman mentions that he has seen the film 37 times and rents the tape of it from a video store several times in the story, and also repeats scenes from the film to the reader or to other characters). Directed by Brian DePalma (other works include Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) and influenced by Hitchcock classics Rear Window & Vertigo, Body Double follows an out of work actor as he delves into the seedy world of adult entertainment in order to solve a murder he witnesses in the Hollywood hills. A vibrant 80s neo-noir thriller it’s an unashamed celebration and examination of the most superficial of decades. Tickets on sale now.
Brian De Palma, talking about his MPAA battles, is asked if he thinks there’s anything in his work that couldn’t be made today: “I don’t think so... You can practically do anything on cable”
“My first idea was, we kill them all in the first mission!” De Palma on the dilemma of adapting MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, a show about a group of characters, into MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, a Tom Cruise movie
(This is something that drives me nuts about the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE)
In conclusion, De Palma is a fan of MARRIAGE STORY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and very much not a fan of the lighting in most streaming movies, and Alec Baldwin will not be cowed into socks by autumnal weather
Today the Hamptons International Film Festival gave Brian De Palma a lifetime achievement award, and celebrated by hosting an onstage event with De Palma and Alec Baldwin entitled "A Conversation with Brian De Palma," which would have been better titled "Alec Baldwin Does Impressions, Tells Anecdotes, and Reveals His Complete and Total Ignorance of Brian De Palma's Early Career Whle Occasionally Permitting De Palma to Get the Odd Word In." The award was presented to De Palma by his daughter, Piper, who aptly described it as "glass and sharp." In the course of the approximately sixty minute conversation, in addition to Baldwin extensively discussing incidents from his own career, the two touched briefly on Mission Impossible, Carlito's Way, Raising Cain, Blow Out, and Dressed to Kill.
HIFF has had lots of nice parties, and conversations with filmmakers also including a talk with Alfre Woodard, star of “Clemency.” Alfre is certainly on the list for possible Best Actress nominees this year. Alec Baldwin interviewed legendary director Brian DePalma at Guild Hall, and DePalma’s 23 year old daughter Piper– named for actress Piper Laurie, star of DePalma’s “Carrie”– presented him with HIFFs Lifetime Achievement Award. DePalma’s long list of great movies is stunning in clip reel. From “Carrie” to “The Untouchables” to the first “Mission Impossible” movie and all his great quirky films like “Dressed to Kill” and “Body Double,” what a resume!
DePalma certainly had a good time, too. He, Woodward, and Baldwin among others turned up later in the day at Silvercup Studio owner Stuart Match Suna’s glittering annual gathering in East Hampton, where the canapes were good but secondary to the smart talk.
Brian De Palma, the recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, sat down with Alec Baldwin on Saturday afternoon for an illuminating and often hilarious conversation at Guild Hall that covered many aspects of Mr. De Palma’s work.
Among the director’s recollections were the struggle to get Tom Cruise to approve a script for the first “Mission Impossible,” Al Pacino burning his hand on the barrel of his “little friend” in “Scarface,” the importance of cinematographers and composers, his battles with the movie ratings board, and discovering John Lithgow in a college play.
As usual when he hosts the festival’s Conversations With . . . programs, Mr. Baldwin had a few anecdotes of his own in this program, among them working with Woody Allen and Tim Burton, and getting his prosthetic fingers chopped off in “Miami Blues.”
At the conclusion of the talk, Piper De Palma, the director’s daughter, presented her father with the award. Earlier in the day, his 1981 thriller “Blow Out” was screened for a full house at the East Hampton Cinema.