DE PALMA TALKS ABOUT 'THE FURY' - EXCERPTS FROM 'FILMS IN REVIEW' AUG-SEPT 1978 ISSUE
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Perri Nemiroff: I just have too many Mission To Mars questions. I think it's also on my brain, because of current events. So, actually, speaking of that, do you ever think about that movie, which I believe took place in 2020, now that we've had some major recent events in that sphere happen in 2021? Just like comparing, contrasting where you guys pictured us being, and where we actually are.
Connie Nielsen: I mean, it was so crazy when we were reading the word "twenty-twenty." I don't know what we were thinking that we would have progressed into. You know, technologically, and socially. But what was great was that, in fact, the women were very much part of the mission control. And it was so cool that it was prescient that way, you know. And modern that way, too, you know? Super modern. And then I thought that it was... there were so many parts of the story that, in hindsight, so many people still, even scientists, are finding, well, was there life then on Mars? And those are questions that we were raising at the time.
And so a lot of the science has really held up, and it's worth noting that we worked with Buzz Aldrin. And that we worked with NASA on the whole film. My coach was Story Musgrave, a rocket scientist. And I remember, we were in Vancouver. We were shooting in upper Vancouver, and he invited me out to dinner, and I was just plucking his brain. He was the person who was part of the two-team [of] people who were the first free space walkers. Who repaired the Hubble Telescope when, you remember, it was put up and it didn't work? And so they had to go up there, and actually walk in space, and repair it. And he explained to me how they did that.
And you know, that's one of the things I love the most about being an actor is that you get to have these incredible experiences with real life geniuses that you get to learn from and listen to. And I was obviously so in awe of all of the stuff he showed me. He showed me pictures he'd been taking with his own camera from when he was going around the Earth, and seeing the Earth from outside. And I saw all those incredible pictures.
And he said, "You know, what you see... you see all those incredible patterns and movement and sand, and all this ocean. And it's just like... we have this unique and rare thing to see Earth, and when I'm out there, I really notice that the most extraordinary thing about Earth, is life. And that's where you come in, Connie. You're an artist, and I love what you do, and what you bring. And that's the true beauty of what humans are. It's art." And it was just so beautiful that here was a rocket scientist who thought that artists were the shit.
Perri: So much of that taps into why I'm obsessed with movies in general. It's just the closest I can come to experiencing things that are out of my reach, or even just understanding someone else's truth that is just so polar opposite to mine. I know Brian De Palma has referred to that experience as being relentless. Is that just because he was at the helm of that film, or were you able to feel any of that while you were on set as well?
Connie: Yeah, we were a lot of actors on that set. And I think that we had some problems with the storyline still. I think that the stories were not really resolved in some of the cases, I think. But we also had amazing actors, like Don Cheadle. I just love Don Cheadle, and I just loved working with him, too. And what a fabulous guy that he is, and amazing actor.
I remember, I am standing inside of this giant white space. And I'm asking him [De Palma], what will that creature look like? Just so I know what I'm looking like. Just so that I have a sense of, what am I supposed to do? And it's worth noting that we're inside of what these spacesuits would really look like. We are hoisted up underneath the sky, like underneath the ceiling of the thing, and trying to emotionally react to-- for example, my husband, dying in front of my face in the middle of the mission. And not being able to move a muscle in my body because in space, you don't move. Like, if you move at all, that motion would send me flying through space like a dead stone, you know, or a piece of ice, forever and ever in that direction that I moved.
And so, having to do all of these things and being able to only communicate with my co-stars and with my director via this radio, I am wearing a cold suit underneath it, through which they are pumping ice water so that I don't overheat and die inside of my suit. And, at the same time, you know, when you're then walking, you can't hardly move.
So at this point, we're shooting the scene where I'm supposed to see, what is this mysterious thing that's inside of this piece of ice on Mars. [She thinks for a moment and laughs a little] And so he can't really explain over the radio, so we said, "Do you mind just coming over here and telling us, like, what are we going to be seeing?" And as he walks towards us, he falls over some cables, and he literally gets this contusion on his foot, if he doesn't actually break it. [Laughing at the absurdity of the situation] "It doesn't matter [shaking her head], I'll pretend I understand what I'm seeing!" Because I just literally could not believe that. Yeah, [still laughing] it was relentless that way.
Perri: I understand. It's like, you know, if you've got some frustrations and stressors and you bump your head, it's ten times worse than it really is! [laughter] All right, so this is like, half Mission To Mars, because it's another thing that Brian said that kind of taps into your experience a little. He had mentioned, I believe this was in the documentary about him, that the Hollywood system destroys you, and that that wound up being his last movie in the states. You, on the other hand, based on how you're describing everything, have had a wonderful experience in Hollywood. So what do you think it is about your experiences making movies in Hollywood that keeps you coming back to them?
Connie: I mean, there have been a few times, I am not going to lie. There have been a few times where in the process of making a movie, I have really questioned whether it's a place for women. Because it's been... it's been really difficult at times to stand up for women, on film and in film. Inside of films where the director was given absolute leeway to change the script completely, and make it unrecognizable from the project that you actually originally signed on to. And then you were caught, and you were kind of like, "But my character is not supposed to be this character, and we... what?!?" And then all of a sudden it becomes a two-hander between two guys and now the girl is like the third wheel on the, you know, on the bike here.
And it's just... it's been extremely frustrating. And I think that if you go into that, you have to have an enormous amount of resilience. And you have to know that it's worth fighting for what you are fighting for. And I think I do. I think I just do believe it's worth fighting for. I do think it's worth fighting for films that will ultimately tell different kinds of stories about women than the stories we're telling, or were telling, up to now. And we're still figuring out how to tell those stories, but they're coming, and they're being made. And I think that will change how we treat women in general, and how we see them.
Neither film is in service of any sort of exclusive genre categorisation, their incisive political interrogations forwarded by the undergirding emphasis on the granular activities of their characters, which, among other things, offers up a wealth of moments wherein ranging emotions – fear, satisfaction, camaraderie, anxiety – are telegraphed by a simple shot of an actor’s face, taken in tandem with whatever else has transpired. An important motif, considering that Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are predicated on how much we trust our own senses, and how the unimpeachable qualities of our personal sight and hearing can be swiftly and ruthlessly denied by authoritative powers. Remaining content within an already skewed environment isn’t enough; one must commit to the final word of politicians, business executives, corporation heads and the like, even if they knowingly present zero verifiability.
Critic J. Hoberman brings the two films together with erudite concision in his book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (they also screened as a 2019 double feature at Film At Lincoln Center as part of a retrospective tailored to the release of Hoberman’s book), writing, “Both movies used patriotic displays as ironic backdrops. De Palma’s invented Liberty Day Jubilee conceals a brutal political killing, while San Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days celebration is a cover-up for fat-cat malfeasance.” Similar points of origin in both films (someone saw/heard something they shouldn’t have) lead to similarly, unintentionally, tragic destinations as architected by America’s political rot. But Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are best viewed through the lens of a malleable relationship of conversing details, rather than two perfectly parallel narratives.
Blow Out’s ticking-clock drama is set in motion when John Travolta’s sound man, Jack Terry, inadvertently records a presidential hopeful’s Chappaquiddick-esque assassination (and rescues Nancy Allen’s Sally, the one-night companion of married politician and presidential-hopeful McRyan), whose status as nothing more than an accident he works to disprove. This ambition is emboldened by his superlative talents as a craftsman, as he is able to uncover the inconsistencies of the incident through the basest––and therefore, purest––filmmaking tools. Cutter’s Way is just as predicated on coincidence, but its tenor is one of disaffection, with Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) and Alex Cutter (John Heard) ultimately left unmoored in a climate where the rich enjoy the privilege of moneyed immunity, after the former thinks he’s spotted a prominent and powerful businessman at the site of a teenage girl’s vicious murder.
As Jack, Travolta is the disgraced wunderkind (a former technician for undercover sting operations to pinch corrupt cops, his own equipment’s inadequacy having led to the gruesome death of a participant), whiling away his time doing foley for crude slasher films, repeatedly reminded by his director that he’s smarter than what the immediate material demands. The film begins as a movie-within-the-movie, a steadicam-led, first-person POV of a killer’s journey through an all-girls’ dormitory, before the paltry shriek of a victim announces the jump to Blow Out itself. Suddenly transplanted to some cheaply appointed editing suite, Jack enacts the first of the many aforementioned reaction shots, one of giggly disbelief directed at what’s on the screen. In contrast to his prior wiseass behaviour, Jack flaunts an impressive focus when he’s out recording nighttime sounds on the Wissahickon Bridge, just southwest of downtown Philadelphia. He’s tuned-in, and his near-expressionless focus suggests a momentary communion with the surrounding nature – that is, until McRyan’s tire is shot out.
De Palma’s gamesmanship, both narrative and visual, is in crystalline form in Blow Out. His signature use of split-screen and split-diopters finds a simpatico partner in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the clean widescreen and long lenses often losing and once again finding characters within crowded spaces. De Palma had already flaunted such nimble camerawork in the museum sequence of 1980’s Dressed to Kill, but not yet with the sinuous unease that Blow Out maintains as its consistent tenor. The reaction shots lift Jack and Sally from their paranoia-laced circumstances, before plunging them back in once again, each time more violently than the last. Jack’s visage runs the gamut from righteous elation to gutted confusion, such as when he is able to assemble his own stop-motion recreation footage of the same incident, that when played with his audio, proves both aurally and visually it was no accident. This very tape is erased by John Lithgow’s trigger-happy hitman Burke, another stumbling block for Jack and Nancy. Later, when all three major players come (crash) together at the Liberty Day Jubilee, Pino Donaggio’s emotively gaudy score envelopes the scene – but only after Allen’s impossibly shattering, reverberating scream echoes – left are we only with the profound dread colouring our heroes’ faces.
The reductive line of comparison would posit that Cutter’s Way is the “muted”, character study equivalent of Blow Out, but this is only partly true. Passer’s film is merely bereft of De Palma’s pyrotechnics, its languorous progression symptomatic of its characters’ own nonexistent prospects. Blow Out interpolated Chappaquiddick and the Zapruder film, its totemic points of reference already burrowed in the minds of all Americans. Cutter’s Way is more uniformly assembled, awash in the miasmic fallout of the Vietnam War, evidenced by Jordan Cronenweth’s jaundiced cinematography (in a 2016 interview in Film Comment, Passer wittily offers: “Did you notice there’s no blue in Cutter’s Way?”), and embodied by John Heard’s paraplegic, one-eyed, amputee veteran, Alex Cutter.
In true De Palma fashion, the director makes sure that the only thing we can come to expect is the unexpected, utilizing plot points that center around heists and suicides, double identities and double-crosses, revenge-seeking ex-cons and sexual manipulations, only to deliver a final twist no one could have seen coming. Throw Thierry Arbogast’s impressive cinematography style and Bill Pankow’s precise editing into the mix and what you get is a bold and exciting thriller celebrating a fierce and intelligent woman coming up on top.
1. Embrace canted angles
One of the most subtle things in this movie that I don't think a lot of other directors utilize are the canted or "Dutch" angles.
This is a spy thriller, so it's the perfect genre to mess with the camera angle to make the audience feel worried and uneasy. De Palma does this all with a graceful touch.
When it comes time to do your movie, think about shaking up the camera angles from the boring norm.
2. Set pieces must be memorable
One of the best things about the first Mission: Impossible is that it set the standard for set pieces. From the opening mask switch to the break-in at the CIA, these set pieces were all perfect trailer moments. I mean, Cruise hanging from the rafters is one of the indelible images in all of film history now.
When you set out to make your movie, think about how the set pieces stand out. As the story goes, Paramount wanted more of a talky spy movie, but Cruise and De Palma said that the only way the public would embrace it is if the set pieces wowed everyone.
They were right.
Here's an excerpt from Frini's article, with help from Google Translation:
Having cleared the field, therefore, of an established and cumbersome inheritance, it is better to focus on the combination of Polański / De Palma. Similarities can be found between various films by the two authors. Starting with Repulsion, Polański's second feature film. Carol is a young manicurist who lives with her sister, Helen. Fragile from a psychological point of view, the girl is morbidly attached to her sister and suffers from Helen's relationship with her lover, whose presence she can hardly bear. Then when Helen and the man leave for a vacation leaving her alone, the young woman falls into a real state of madness, ending up locking herself in the apartment and killing both a suitor and the landlord.
Carol inaugurates a series of female characters from Polański's cinema who, with various nuances, are characterized by a whole series of problems related to relationships in general and with men in particular. Next to Carol is Sarah, the heroine of Please Don't Bite Me on the Neck! (The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck), 1967, and Rosemary, star of Rosemary's Baby, 1968. Sarah is a virgin and for this reason her father keeps her segregated, fearing that she could end up in the clutches of the vampire who terrorizes a district of Transylvania. Which in fact happens. Moving to a New York apartment with her husband, Rosemary is instead made pregnant by the devil. While in Repulsion the viewer can have no doubts about Carol's mental state (in case she wonders about the possible causes) in Rosemary's Baby Polański maintains a certain ambiguity: there really is a satanic sect or the protagonist, perhaps terrified of having a child, is he just imagining everything?
Not dissimilar from the female characters of the first part of Polański's career: one could add Simon Choule who commits suicide (and of which we learn something only through the other characters) in The Tenant, are those of the films of the seventies by De Palma. Le due sorelle (Sisters, 1972), stars Danielle, who suffers from personality disorders (she was separated at birth from a twin who died in the surgery) and who, prey to a raptus, kills a man after the adventure of one night. Danielle's relationship with her dead sister isn't much different than Carol's with Helen. The derivation from the cinemaof Polański in Carrie, which De Palma made in 1976, is evident. Not only and not so much for the diabolical theme that relates it to Rosemary's Baby (the latter also to The Phantom of the Paradise), as for the characterization of the character (you can even notice a physical similarity between Carol, Rosemary and Carrie, a certain physical fragility as well as psychological) and for how it is defined through the relationship with the others. In Repulsion as in Sisters and Carrie, the protagonists react to an attack from the outside world. In the first two in the form of a male intrusion into their private life; Carrie instead gives free rein to her telekinetic powers first against the oppressive and bigoted mother (who however is the projection of Carrie, is what she could become, as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown is of her daughter / sister) who wants to prevent her from attending the dance at the end of the school year, then during the party when she is made the subject of a terrible joke. Like Repulsion, Carrie is based on a narrative structure that contrasts the interior (the house, but also the physical and psychological intimacy of the two women) and the exterior (the beautician where Carol works and Carrie's college). The relationship with the others unites Repulsion and Carrie also in the way in which the male characters of the two films relate to Carrie / Carol.
The same thing regarding the interior and the exterior applies to The Tenant, who also comes out in the same year as Carrie. It must be said, among other things, that for both Polański and De Palma the interior-house does not at all mean that the protagonists are safe in the home: not the tenant Trelkovsky, obsessed with the suicide of the previous tenant, nor is Rosemary (whose husband is part of the satanic plot) nor Carrie, because of her mother.
As for The Tenant, other points of contact with contemporary Carrie should be emphasized. In both, in the main sequence (Trelkovsky's suicide, Carrie's massacre) Polański and De Palma show in subjective what the two characters see (or think they see): Trelkovsky the inhabitants of the building who hunt him, threatening and diabolical (some with a forked tongue), Carrie students and teachers laughing at her. The point of view of the characters does not exclude an objective level, alternating with the subjective in order to create a hallucinatory dimension, which sows doubt in the viewer, as already mentioned with regard to Rosemary's Baby. And it is precisely this narrative choice, practiced with obstinacy by Polański and which casts a shadow of ambiguity on the protagonists (healthy or crazy?), that represents the main source of inspiration for De Palma. In addition, the sequence in which Trelkovsky throws himself out of the window and is surrounded by apartment buildings and drags himself on the ground is also reminiscent of the ending of The Phantom of the Paradise, with Winslow agonizing as the concertgoers cheer and mock him.
But there are other characteristics that the two filmmakers have in common and that should be explored. The circularity of the narrative (in What?, Chinatown, The Tenant, and in Obsession, Blow Out, Femme Fatale), on which in 1993 Polański expressed himself as follows: "It is a form of elegance that has always seduced in the cinema. I really like works where there is a beginning, a development, and an ending in which you return to the starting point "(Alberto Scandola, Roman Polański, Il Castoro Cinema, 2002).
The use of machine movements, for example the overview on the windows of the condominium made with Louma in The Tenant (he is the first to use this articulated crane) and the equally masterful use of the dolly in the sequence of the awards ceremony in Carrie. As well as the good intentions of the characters that have a nefarious effect in The Fearless Vampire Killers, Chinatown, Tess, and in Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double. Also, in The Fearless Vampire Killers and The Phantom of the Paradise we find a common "classic" inspiration (respectively Dreyer's Vampyr and Julian's Phantom of the Opera), similar expressive choices (acceleration), the mixture of horror situations and humor, characters that are almost mirror-like (Von Krolok / Swan, Sarah / Phoenix, Alfred and Abronsius / Winslow, Herbert / Beef, Koukol / Philbin) and linked by an equally specular relationship: becoming vampires in the first and the contract with the devil and its consequences in the second.
The Tenant and Dressed to Kill share evident themes (the double, schizophrenia, the disguise of a woman) and some narrative situations that De Palma seems to take from Polański. In The Tenant, during the scene in the church, a little girl sitting a little further on stares at Trelkovski, while in Dressed to Kill a little Girl with her mother repeatedly stares at Kate in the elevator. Furthermore, when Trelkovski lets Stella entertain him, the girl wakes him up in the morning and he snaps up frightened, almost defending himself; Liz does the same in the Dressed to Kill finale. Trelkovski says he had a nightmare, but the viewer doesn't see it. De Palma, on the other hand, shows Liz's nightmare.
Though it isn’t really until 2015’s Rogue Nation that Mission: Impossible directly begins to question the validity of the IMF in the modern day—much like Skyfall does with the 00 section—De Palma lays the foundations of exploring whether a concept so rooted in the Cold War showmanship, theatrics and game theory as Mission: Impossible can even exist in a world that doesn’t need it. Rogue Nation’s answer, further underlined in Fallout (which more than any of the previous films attempts to capture some of the essence of De Palma’s movie, even if aesthetically it has more in common with Christopher Nolan), is that the IMF *is* still relevant, but for one reason, and it’s the same reason as with the 00 section: in that franchise’s case, it’s James Bond. In Mission: Impossible’s case, it is Ethan Hunt.
Mission: Impossible does not sell Ethan, however, as a Bond proxy. Cruise’s charm is perfectly evident but Ethan is not a seductive, one-man killing machine, or indeed the death-defying nihilist he becomes post-MI:3. Ethan here is a touch more enigmatic and distant, which befits the colder stylings of De Palma’s approach to the material. His lens channels Hitchcock while imbuing the frame with a distinctly De Palma-level of paranoia. Behind the 90’s action beats and slicker dynamic, there remains a visible 70s conspiracy aspect to Mission: Impossible which is missing from subsequent pictures. It’s as if De Palma didn’t believe in the 60’s show, or didn’t believe it could exist beyond the 60s, and intentionally tries to revive the property within a post-70s culture, one where spooks like Kittredge reflect a government far more willing to sacrifice the lives of spies such as the IMF as part of a bigger, self-interested picture.
You only have to look at the strange character of Claire Phelps to see how Mission: Impossible doesn’t follow a traditional narrative pattern, particularly for a character like Ethan. MI:2, in trying to recast him as an American folk hero spy, immediately gives him ‘the love interest’ who you know will be disposable by the end of the picture (which turns out to be the case), but De Palma never tips Ethan and Claire into any kind of conventional romance. There is sexual chemistry and clear frisson, which almost enters into sexually aggressive territory at one point, but there is only the suggestion that Ethan and Claire may have slept together, and that Ethan may have compromised his own morals in doing so. Yet, in much the way Ethan becomes a tactical master three steps ahead of his enemies, sleeping with Claire may have been part of his plan all along, when ostensibly it seems to be part of Phelps’.
Claire, played by beguiling French beauty Emmanuelle Beart, is a strangely inert character. She is a spy yet does not seem to have any real agency about her. She is married to Jim yet this almost feels like a technicality, given we see almost no sign of warmth or connection between them. She might or might not have been complicit in murdering the IMF team; during the beautifully executed scene in which Phelps reveals his guilt to the audience yet not directly to Ethan, but which can equally be read as Ethan figuring out that Phelps is Job, Ethan actively imagines and then discounts Claire as the one who blew up team member Hannah’s car. If Ethan does have feelings for Claire, this could be his way of refusing to countenance she could be a traitor\killer, and him trying to protect her, but De Palma keeps it ambiguous. We never quite know for sure, come the end, if Claire was always just in it for the money like her husband. She is also never really defined as a rounded character in her own right.
Phelps certainly seems to believe Ethan slept with his wife and made that connection, given how in their final confrontation he quotes the Bible and the well-known passage: “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” This plays into the odd level of religious symbolism which underlines Phelps’ extremism; he presents himself to Max as Job 3:14, which the CIA believe is code for an operation but Ethan figures out is the following Biblical passage: “with kings and counsellors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins.”
This suggests Phelps is or was a religious man (and given Voight’s own personal leanings, very possibly a conservative), particularly in how he seems to be using Christian scripture to justify the betrayal of his nation. ‘Building for themselves’ references his own attempts to become a mercenary and profit over the deaths of many of his fellow spies still protecting their country, while the ‘places now lying in ruins’ could be how Phelps considers America: a country he does not recognise following the end of a career-defining hostility. There is a fundamentalist extremism at play here which, oddly, presages how certain Middle Eastern organisations would twist Islam to fit their own self-aggrandising interpretations as we entered the next decade.
Oddly, though, Redgrave’s Max tells Ethan, when posing as Job, that “Job is not given to quoting scripture in his communications” after Ethan does just that, suggesting Phelps is a false prophet. He doesn’t really know or understand the Bible and it could just be another example of his warped psyche when it comes to America as a nation – using the Christian belief system which underpins the land of the free against it. De Palma doesn’t take these religious notions too much further but McQuarrie certainly revisits them twenty years later in Fallout; Ethan again poses as a terrorist underpinned by quasi-religious doctrine when making deals with Max’s daughter, no less. This is no doubt an intentional homage to the first film but it does show how Mission: Impossible casts a long shadow across the rest of its own franchise.