AN ENTRANCE, AN EXIT, AND A PLACE IN BETWEEN
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De Palma has always been an obsessive stylist. His cinema pulls viewers through intricate long takes and plot machinations with a classical understanding of suspense. And he's always been fascinated with pulp fiction. Are Snakes Necessary? is pure pulp, with the trappings of political thriller. It's stupid, and as with some of the bad novels of Bret Easton Ellis, stupid is the message.
Are Snakes Necessary? follows the story of a fixer working for a womanizing Senator. There are plenty of clichés, with snarling casino magnates and icy blondes, and more than a few De Palma flourishes as well, such as a photographer sniffing out intrigue on the set of a remake of Vertigo. The style is bare, taking on some of the cadence of The West Wing or a Tom Clancy thriller, but there are also certain strange additions, including a subplot with a rural “Dear Abby” character.
De Palma is often mistakenly criticized for the content of his films: a film about pornography is called pornographic, a movie about rape during the Vietnam War is called misogynistic. Most recently De Palma made a film about the manufactured idea of international terrorism, and it was drubbed as anti-Muslim. Generally, it's been said that he suffers from the curse of people liking his movies for the wrong reasons—Scarface, a film about the shortcomings of the American dream more than a gangster flick, being the obvious example—and surely some people dislike his films for the wrong reasons as well.
Are Snakes Necessary? is obviously a silly experiment in pulp fantasia, and yet there are some indelible images, almost like the intricate set pieces of any De Palma film, that are breathtaking. This is part of the paradox of De Palma's enduring brilliance: He uses the language of trash to talk about trash, and finds an erotic excitement in the transgression, because sometimes it's necessary to roll that shit around in your mouth.
Likewise, De Palma twists genres to catch moments of realness. He deconstructs war pictures in Casualties of War, for example, about the kidnapping and rape of a young woman by American troops in Vietnam. He later revisited this material in Redacted; both pictures reject American militarism, and highlight the violence and venality of military occupation.
The realness of Are Snakes Necessary? comes out in overwhelming cynicism. As more “my years at the White House” books emerge from the past two administrations, it only becomes clearer how self-serious the public workers of the executive branch hold themselves to be—and that this self-seriousness, this acting, is also a violence wrought upon the public.
While De Palma has proven to be capable of epic work in cinema, Are Snakes Necessary? is not exactly another symphony—it's an exercise, a late quartet. But it's quick, and it’s fun. So don't take it too seriously.
For an episode posted a week ago, Matt Spicer, writer/director of Ingrid Goes West, recorded a commentary for Brian De Palma's Blow Out. In the episode's introduction, Spicer explains to Davidson how, when Spicer was 13 years old, his family would sometimes get the free trial of HBO. And whenever that happened, he would stay up late and watch the late night movies.
"And that's how I saw some of my favorite movies for the first time," Spicer tells Davidson. "I saw Boogie Nights for the first time on HBO late at night. So, like, obviously all the best movies, too, were on after midnight. You know, they would play the really salacious stuff. So of course, as a teenager, that's the stuff that you want to watch. And Blow Out was one of those movies. And I remember, it was just one of those perfect things where, like, it's so rare, too, when, back then, you'd be flipping through the channels and you'd hit right as the movie was starting, you know, and so you usually jump in. And the opening scene of Blow Out is... I mean, can you imagine, truly, an opening scene more captivating to like, a 13-year-old boy, than this movie? I mean, it was just literally like, I think, I was just like, I'm definitely watching this whole movie. But, like, I was lured in by this sort of, you know, salacious slasher movie with a bunch of nudity or whatever. But there's this really, like, intense, expertly-made genre thriller, paranoid thriller attached to it. And that whopper of an ending that's just like... And so I think I just went on this full ride. And this was, you know, my film education, I hadn't really decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker at this point. It was just a really cool movie that I... saw. And that had always stuck with me. And I don't know even know if I remembered the title of it. And then I remember in college, it coming up as a potential movie that I could do an essay on. And I was just like, 'Oh, my God, that's the movie that I saw. I love this movie. I want to write about that.' And so I watched it a bunch and wrote about it for this essay."
In the book, Melody Thomas Scott recalls her work as a child actor and young adult, leading up to her role in The Fury and beyond. At 8 years old, she was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, cast as the young version of Marnie in Marnie (1964). "Days with Hitchcock were long and arduous," she writes, "partly because, unlike any director I've ever worked with since, he would take excessive effort to literally push us into position."
In 1971, she worked with Clint Eastwood on Don Siegel's The Beguiled. "Clint would greet us girls each day with a gentle kiss on the cheek. He was such a gentleman." She went on to have a small part as the kidnapped girl in Siegel and Eastwood's Dirty Harry.
And although Melody never once mentions Kirk Douglas in her chapter on The Fury, she has a chapter about being called to an interview at an office in Beverly Hills, where Douglas himself, after braiding her hair, cast her on the spot in a new western he was directing, Posse (1975). "The next thing I knew, he started braiding my hair," she writes in the memoir. "I know this sort of thing would never happen in today's culture but I can assure you, it was completely innocent. Kirk Douglas braided my hair."
After the filming of a scene with John Wayne in what would turn out to be his final film, The Shootist (and again with Don Siegel directing), and then angering John Landis by refusing to agree to do a topless scene in National Lampoon's Animal House ("He says he never wants to see you in his casting office again," Melody's agent told her, followed by "And you'll never be cast in any of his films-- end quote"), the book turns to the De Palma project:
It was June 1977, and I had an interview at 20th Century Fox with Brian De Palma, the director for Mission: Impossible, Carlito's Way, The Untouchables, Scarface, and many more. Of course, back in the late seventies, Brian was mostly known for directing Carrie, the [Stephen] King book-to-film adaptation that changed the world of horror films forever. It featured Sissy Spacek and a giant bucket of pigs' blood.
Pigs' blood aside, my very first interview was with Brian himself and Amy Irving, the star of the movie. Brian was very much a "throw the script down and let's improv" kind of director, which suited me fine. Plus Brian seemed to take a liking to me right away, which also suited me fine. When he asked me to stay to read with some of the girls auditioning for other roles, I happily agreed.
I should be honest. I hadn't seen the movie Carrie, so I didn't know who Amy Irving even was. Not that it would have made much of a difference anyway. I had the sort of personality where it didn't matter who you were, I was going to be unfiltered and friendly regardless.
"So do you have a boyfriend?" I remember asking Amy during one of our audition breaks.
"I do," she said.
"Oh really? What does he do?"
"Mmm... He's a director," she said.
"Oh, really? What's he directed?" I asked nonchalantly, as if gabbing with a friend from school.
I could feel her unwillingness to answer my nosy question. She murmured quietly, "...Jaws."
Jaws? I certainly knew who Steven Spielberg was. This girl must be somebody special, I remember thinking. She's dating one of the most famous directors in the world! She would, of course, go on to marry Steven Spielberg, but that, I'm afraid, is not my story to tell.
I ended up being cast in The Fury as LaRue, best friend to Amy's Gillian Bellaver. Amy and I became fast friends during our time filming in Chicago. Or maybe she just couldn't fling me off! I stuck to her like glue, mesmerized by all that she was. Amy was sophisticated, savvy, world-traveled. Her father was a famous theater director and producer and her mother a well-known actress. Her best friend was Carrie Fisher. She traveled in circles not only with Steven Spielberg, but also Harrison Ford, George Lucas... I mean, Laurence Olivier was one of her family friends. To say she was out of my league would be a gross understatement.
In addition to forming a bond with Amy, the entire cast and crew became quite close. We'd play poker in the evenings up in Executive Producer Frank Yablans's penthouse suite where "everybody" was doing everything. I hate to dismiss the drug scene with a casual oh, but it was just the times. But... it was the times! Still, I had never experienced this scene face to face in my youth and here it was, presented to me for the first time. Not to sound like a goody two shoes, because I'm no angel, but I never did join in on that particular part of our cast bonding. No judgment for those who chose to go under the influence of drugs, though. I simply never trusted what drugs would do to me.
For more innocent fun, we could always count on John Cassavetes, who seemed to know Chicago like the back of his hand. He was always surprising us with impromptu dinners at amazing Italian restaurants. But there's one outing he treated us to that's hard even for me to believe all these years later, and i was there!
The King Tut exhibit was at Chicago's Field Museum at that time. Between our shooting schedule and the long lines at the museum, there was no way that any of us would be able to take a quick peek at King Tut. But it was a huge tour and the whole city was talking about it, and we desperately wanted to go.
One night-- I believe it was a Saturday-- Cassavetes treated us to yet another meal at an award-winning Italian restaurant. But our dinner was much later than usual, and we didn't leave the restaurant until around 11:30 p.m. After climbing into our waiting studio vans, our drives followed strict instructions on where to take us next. We were not going back to the Continental Plaza Hotel yet.
To this day I don't know how he did it, but Cassavetes had made arrangements with who knows how many museum contacts and employees. At midnight, our vans pulled up to a back entrance at the Field Museum; we got out, having been prepped in the vans to keep our voices down and do exactly as we were told. Abracadabra, and poof! We were taken into a private back hallway of the museum. Hocus pocus, and poof! We were ushered into its great public rooms by silent security guards. The next step was a bit trickier, as we had to bend down and jump over invisible alarm beams. I know! Seems preposterous, entirely made up, like something out of a spy movie-- but I was there. We did indeed see the King Tut exhibit that night, and afterwards were whisked into our waiting vans as secretly as we had arrived, then on to our hotel. Another unbelievable evening courtesy of John Cassavetes! It was certainly one of my most memorable filming experiences.
The film was coming to an end and we all worked hard to finish the location scenes in Chicago, including a sequence shot at a real high school where actual students were cast as extras. One of those extras was a young girl named Daryl Hannah. She wasn't known at the time, but years later I thought, my goodness! That's the girl who played one of the extras at the girl's school. Watch the film very closely and I bet you can spot her!
As is often the case, my friendship with Amy came to an end as soon as the shoot did. But the thrill of working with Brian De Palma became one of the highlights of my career. Boy, what a talented director. He is such a master collaborator that he manages to not only make all cast and crew comfortable, but compels them to bring their absolute best to the table, in order to assist him in his ultimate vision. Not an easy feat to pull off. I was disappointed that The Fury didn't do very well with the critics or the box office. But I wouldn't have given up this wonderful experience for all the gold in the King Tut exhibit!
Meanwhile, Scott Delahunt's "Lost In Translation" column at Psycho Drive-In takes a brief look at the historical accuracy of The Untouchables:
The film focuses on the Untouchables’ pursuit of Al Capone. Ness’ first outing in Chicago goes as it did historically, a lot of notice and no whiskey; Capone’s men had been tipped off by someone on the Chicago Police Department. Despite the headlines, Ness pushes on. He gathers a core group of men he can trust – former beat cop Malone, rookie cop Stone, and IRS accountant Wallace, who was assigned to help Ness with an eye on nailing Capone for tax evasion.
The point of view remains on Ness and his men for the bulk of the film. Capone is kept removed from the day to day operations of his mob, making it difficult to pin him on any crime. The mob boss does keep his own men in line, with force if needed. The choice is be loyal to Capone or die. Ness, however, earned the loyalty of the Untouchables. The difference between the mobsters and the law enforcement agents is wide. Capone has an expensive home, has staff who will serve the finest dinner on silver plates and wine in crystal glasses. Ness has a simple house, crammed in between two similar houses, a wife and child, simple furnishings. When Ness goes out with his team, they go to a cheap diner.
Ness’ investigation includes a raid on a smuggling convoy along the Canadian border with the RCMP’s assistance, where he manages to arrest Capone’s bookkeeper. With some persuasion, the bookkeeper helps Wallace to decode the ledgers. Capone doesn’t take the news well. Nitti is sent to make sure the bookkeeper doesn’t testify, resulting in both the bookkeeper and Wallace dead. Capone ups the ante by having Malone killed as well.
Undaunted, Ness continues the fight. In his dying breath, Malone tells Ness about Capone’s other bookkeeper being sent out of town by rail later that night. Malone and Stone stake out the railway station, leading to one of the tensest scenes in cinema history. The clip below doesn’t show the tension building as Ness watches people arriving and trying to figure out who could be part of Capone’s gang. The shootout is the release of that tension.
With the bookkeeper, Ness is able to build a case for tax evasion against Capone. Despite an attempt at jury tampering, Capone is found guilty, is fined $50 000 and is given 11 years in prison.
The movie takes a few liberties. Some were needed because of the nature of the medium. Ness had ten men initially, all under thirty and idealistic. It’s harder to corrupt a young man full of idealism than an experienced man who has seen how the world works. The TV series could bring in different members through the use of a rotating cast of supporting actors. A film doesn’t have that luxury, so Ness has just Malone, Wallace, and Stone. Frank Nitti didn’t die during Capone’s trial from a fall from a building; Nitti took over Capone’s mob when Capone went to prison and died by his own hand in 1943. However, the film did keep the focus on Ness’ investigation of Capone.
While some of the historical facts were loose, visual details were accurate. Chicago landmarks were used, and the fashion of the era for men and women, for high class and for working class, was accurate. Visually, the film is lush. The 1959 TV series didn’t have the luxury of colour, so couldn’t be anywhere near as lush. The advantage of movies is budget, and The Untouchables made the most of this advantage.
Like the 1959 series, the 1987 film lets drama outweigh historical accuracy in a few areas. However, the strength of the cast, the writing, and the filming lets audiences ignore differences until well after the film is over. The Untouchables is a crime drama, a war between law & order and criminal enterprise, and is well worth viewing even if it isn’t 100% accurate.
Lattanzio's article continues:
Simien took from his favorite horror movies to tell a uniquely black story that he feels is missing from the horror genre. “I felt like I haven’t really seen anything that’s pulling from all those different traditions, but is also black, and is using those sort of cinematic techniques to interrogate and make us look at the absurdities of what black women specifically, but what all marginalized people go through,” he said.
“It’s a movie about a killer weave — spoiler alert — but the weave itself burst onto the national scene in 1989, specifically through the popularity of Janet Jackson, the ‘Pleasure Principle’ video first but then ‘Rhythm Nation’ and all those amazing Ebony covers,” Simien said. “I thought it would be an interesting way to look at ourselves but through a fantasy kind of lens. It’s easier sometimes to digest some of this stuff if we can be in a dream world, and I felt like I could make a dream world out of 1989.”
“Let’s not forget music and fashion at that time in black culture was alive and thriving. It’s really when it became rich,” star Kelly Rowland said.
Ramos adds that Hulu will release the film on October 23, "with a to-be-determined theatrical date," so I guess the takeaway there is that it will be streaming on Hulu October 23rd, with a possible theatrical release beforehand.
Two reviews of Bad Hair from that Sundance premiere specifically mention De Palma's Body Double:
“Bad Hair” is shot on film in a way that captures the movie’s throwback look and allows Simien and his cinematographer Topher Osborn to play with color and lighting. The night scenes practically sparkle from blue moonlight, yet dark alleyways and overpasses look even more foreboding with less light. In some scenes, colorful neon signs and lighting fixtures heighten the intensity of the moment.
There’s one particularly striking scene of two actors in mid-kiss backlit with a bright blue light, and carefully composed moments like this add to the film’s suspense – things can’t be this pretty all the time in a horror movie.
Costume designer Ceci also deserves a round of applause for recreating the vivid fashions from the start of her career in the late 80s and early 90s. The gamut of costumes range from professional office wear at the TV channel to casual clothes when visiting family to the fashionable excesses of performers and TV personalities. Many of Ceci’s ensembles also tell a nuanced story of cultural identity and class.
Simien dives into his love of horror movies and peppers references to some of his favorites throughout “Bad Hair.” For instance, there’s a split diopter shot as an homage to Brian De Palma’s “Body Double,” an axe that harkens back to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and many other allusions to such movies as “Carrie,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
“Bad Hair” references itself often, repeating scenes and clues to the story in flashbacks, which can sometimes get in the way of its own momentum. The movie is front-loaded with exposition, but once the action gets going and the narrative pieces fall into place, “Bad Hair” is a creepy movie with thoughtful political twists and thrilling supernatural turns.
The plight of black women and their hair has birthed enough cinematic investigations to yield its own subgenre, from Chris Rock’s astute 2009 documentary “Good Hair” to the 2020 Oscar-nominated animated short “Hair Love.” These endearing cultural explorations are mere preludes to the exuberance of “Bad Hair,” a rambunctious, overindulgent comedy-horror excursion from “Dear White People” director Justin Simien. Equal parts vintage Brian De Palma thriller and race-centric corporate fashion satire in the spirit of “Putney Swope,” Simien’s ludicrous ’80s-spiced supernatural B-movie doesn’t know when to quit, much like the demonic weave at its center.
With 2014’s “Dear White People,” Simien became one of the most exciting writer-director voices in black cinema, merging scathing and satiric observations with genuine insights into contemporary African American frustrations. “Bad Hair” turns the clock back to 1989, elaborating on the thorny issues surrounding black women in popular culture, and may as well be a prequel set in the same snarky universe. However, “Dear White People” managed a tricky balance between snark and genuine social commentary, but even the most acrobatic screenwriting can’t bear the weight of everything Simien tosses into “Bad Hair.” Working overtime to wring substantial insight from a deranged premise about a killer hairstyle with a thirst for blood, the movie’s alternately trying too hard and not hard enough.
At least it’s a substantial mess: “Bad Hair” opens with a James Baldwin quote, digs into the contradictions of the nascent music video industry, and bemoans the sexism of late-’80s workplace — all before tackling the specter of slavery that frames the entire premise. At the same time, it’s a riotous genre pastiche filled with shrieking music cues, canted angles, and shadowy encounters galore. Simien crams the wild psychological thrills of “Body Double” into the framework for wry anti-capitalist humor, and that’s appealing enough in fits at starts. At 115 minutes, however, “Bad Hair” struggles to make its disparate elements click; there’s just enough potential strewn throughout to make it clear the movie could have benefited from a shearing of its own.
That's just one of the fine moments in this two-hour-and-forty-minute podcast discussion between Gattanella and Hughes of seven Brian De Palma films. The podcast episode runs about the length of De Palma's Scarface, yet that film is not one of the ones included. The films the pair watched and then discussed on this episode are Sisters, Phantom Of The Paradise (Hughes remarks that she admires and appreciates how De Palma made Phantom a tight and lean 90-minute film), Dressed To Kill, Body Double, Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, and Femme Fatale.
During the discussion on Raising Cain, Hughes has a bit of an epiphany:
Korey: I was saying when we first started this, that a lot of De Palma's movies, like Tarantino's movies, are obviously made by someone whose life revolves around movies. Like, I feel like De Palma's life on a personal level, is dominated by the pop culture he's consumed. And one thing I was thinking is that he has all these movies about multiple personalities, and they're all highly entertaining, and not even remotely psychologically plausible. And I think the reason for that is De Palma is filtering multiple personalities through pop culture. So he's not engaging with actual research on this condition in actual people. His movies address how pop culture addresses multiple personality disorder. So I feel like he's riffing on how we as a culture process this concept. Not the actual concept itself.
Jack: Well, in the case of Raising Cain, I watched an interview with him, and he said that he had a friend who was a child psychologist, and was trying to do tests about how children respond to this or that, and trauma and stuff like that. And I think in his head, he then bounced off that into what this movie became. So he starts from a very basic place, and then...
Korey: Yeah, I think that's what makes them so melodramatic and heightened, is that he's not telling a story about multiple personalities. He's telling a story about the stories we tell about multiple personalities. And I'm thinking that's what I think really unites his treatment of this concept in Sisters, in Dressed To Kill, in Raising Cain, is he's telling a story about the stories we tell.