ON NEW EPISODE OF PODCAST "THE TIME OF MONSTERS WITH JEET HEER
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
No idea what will happen, but apparently Warner's distribution agreement for Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale has ended. It's been pulled from digital retailers (excluding those who already bought it), and if you want Shout! Factory's recent Blu-ray of it, might be wise to act fast.
With that, Chen breaks things up into five sections, including: Insert yourself into the story (As seen in: The Squid and the Whale (2005)); and Use the geography of the room (As seen in: Mistress America (2015)). In the latter, Chen writes:
For the Criterion release of Dressed to Kill, Baumbach cross-examined De Palma on the gripping 10-minute sequence in which Angie Dickinson is pursued across a vast museum. “It’s very important when you go to a space, to walk around it,” De Palma explains to a nodding Baumbach. “Take photographs. See what’s unique about the space… have them look in various ways so the audience gets acclimated to the geography of the location.”
This patient build-up is a De Palma staple, from the first shootout of Carlito’s Way to the pre-bloodbath prom scenes of Carrie. Similarly, in Baumbach’s Mistress America, a house tour sets up the elaborate second act’s double-crossing, eavesdropping and squabbling over a chess set. Gerwig and her gang are led through the ground floor and, as with Dressed to Kill, they scrutinise the decor (“this place is amazing,” “it’s really fucking nice,” “are those my cats?”). And then everyone splits up for intersecting subplots. As De Palma tells Baumbach: “The chess game can begin, but you’ve got to know the board.”
“This was the Warner Bros youth group,” De Palma says about himself, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader in the ’70s. “We were all incredibly supportive of each other, passing scripts back and forth, looking at each other’s movies.” Nowadays, De Palma’s cinephile BFFs are Baumbach, Paltrow and Wes Anderson. Their filmmaking philosophies may seem contradictory, but that means common ground must be taken seriously. For instance, when Baumbach mentioned the possibility of casting Gerwig in Greenberg, De Palma did his homework: “I said, ‘Who’s Greta’?’ And I looked at every mumblecore movie and said, ‘My god, she’s really good!’”
With that, Hayes proceeds with thoughtful choices for each of the previous decades of popular film: 1920s: Metropolis; 1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front; 1940s: Best Years of Our Lives; 1950s: 12 Angry Men; 1960s: 2001: A Space Odyssey; 1970s: The Godfather; 1980s: Scarface; 1990s: Pulp Fiction; 2000s: The Dark Knight; 2010s: The Social Network. Jarringly, for our current decade, he has chosen the not-very-good Adam McKay film Don't Look Up. "It's certainly not the best film of the decade so far," Hayes states, "but it's arguably the most defining." I would argue that this past year's Everything Everywhere All At Once would have been a much better choice for this slot.
In any case, here's what Hayes has to say about his choice of Scarface as the defining film of the 1980s:
Cocaine imports? In the 1980s?! No way. With Pablo Escobar’s vast white-powder-funded kingdom expanding by the day, President Nixon had famously declared a “war on drugs” 10 years earlier that was consequently failing. As sizable shipments of one of South America’s finest exports were washing up on US shores, Brian De Palma’s 1983 movie, Scarface was a timely depiction of the perils of both drug dealing and drug consumption in the States.
Al Pacino plays Tony Montana a Cuban immigrant-turned-drug baron whose drug empire and intake grow rapidly. As his behavior becomes more erratic, and his enemies grow by the dozen, he soon finds himself in deep water. In many ways, his whole journey reflects the escalating greed, consumption, and materialism of another cocaine-fueled industry which defined the '80s: Wall Street.
Here's a bit more of an excerpt from Kirshner's review:
The movie chapters are a little better – or at least more distinct – but collectively they amount to something less than a mixed bag. Things get off to an unpromising start with Bullitt, fifteen pages that are essentially a mash note to Steve McQueen, with nary a glimmer of insight into this rich and multifaceted film. The treatment of Dirty Harry, in contrast, is a pleasant surprise. In the best and most thoughtful chapter in the book, Tarantino shines, contextualizing the film in the context of director Don Siegel’s long career, and engages with uncharacteristic nuance in the debate surrounding the film’s problematic politics. Even here, though, the tendency to speak in breathless soundbites (‘If Dirty Harry were a boxer it would be Mike Tyson in his knockout prime’) derails the momentum of sustained analysis. Still, if every chapter in Cinema Speculation flashed the strengths of this one, it would be worth pushing through all the braggadocio and monologuing.
Perhaps the biggest bust in this volume is its treatment of The Getaway. A still from that production graces the cover, featuring the filmmaker’s favorites Sam Peckinpah and McQueen, so presumably Tarantino would have something to say about this one. Instead we are treated to twenty-five pages of not very much. Our raconteur picks apart a few holes in the plot, and tells us that ‘I asked Peter [Bogdanovich] what he thought about [the] novel.’ Observations about the movie, however, are limited to tossed-off remarks such as ‘It’s my feeling that Ali McGraw’s moment to moment work in this film is essential’ and ‘I used to like the ending more than I do now.’ The Getaway is no masterpiece, but it is a film worth talking about, and even taking seriously. Christina Newland, in a thoughtful, engaging and enthusiastic essay for Little White Lies, says more in a thousand words than Tarantino offers here.
Sisters provides the opportunity for an appreciation of the early films of Brian de Palma, and its long discussion of Taxi Driver knows enough to ask a key question: is this a movie about a racist or is it a racist movie? Unfortunately, yet again, over thirty pages there is not a single moment of critical acumen (nor any appreciation of the filmmaking). Instead, now too recognizably on brand, serious engagement with one of the landmarks of the New Hollywood is eschewed in favour of here’s-what-I-think-off-the-top-of-my-head. There is a time and place for such things – check out Tarantino’s brilliant revisionist interpretation (in character) of Top Gun from the 1994 movie Sleep with Me – but this isn’t it. Cinema Speculation gives the impression that any hint of visual analysis or even appreciation would fall under the category of highbrow – which, to Tarantino, is the ultimate obscenity. According to the index (yes, the book has a fucking index, probably to help people look themselves up), Alfred Hitchcock appears over twenty-five times in the text. Yet there is no engagement with the marvellous Hitchcockian flourishes that characterize some of Taxi Driver’s finest scenes. Instead, the discussion is limited to observations like ‘Travis was a fucking loon,’ and ‘no fucking way was Travis in Vietnam’ (um, okay, if you say so); and a report of the audience reaction at a favorite grindhouse cinema: ‘I dug it, they dug it, and as an audience, we dug it.’ Say what you will about these comments, but they are definitely not highbrow.
Quentin Tarantino is an accomplished filmmaker, and, necessarily, a capable artisan. One could not tell that from this book, which reads like a movie geek perhaps terrified at being seen as a movie nerd. This likely accounts for some of the odd gaps in the narrative, which runs away screaming from anything that might be remotely characterized as thoughtful. Robert Altman, whose many seventies landmarks include McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, is barely noted, invoked primarily as the target of ad hominem broadsides; Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View) goes unmentioned; Woody Allen’s output is reduced to a few words of high praise for the ‘early funny ones’. This list could easily be elaborated, but these examples raise a larger, more general concern.
Cinema Speculation presents itself as a celebration of ‘the most challenging movies of the greatest movie making era in the history of Hollywood.’ A sentiment that I (and many others) share. What is, finally, most bizarre about its baker’s dozen of features is not so much the idiosyncratic films included, but those that are left out. In trying to make the case that the seventies were indeed a golden age, it is unlikely that this set of movies would convince anybody of anything (although Taxi Driver soars, and you could argue the case for a couple of the others). Even Tarantino isn’t sold on some of them, largely deploying Hardcore as a vehicle to trash Paul Schrader (this is a book that pauses to settle numerous scores), and noting ‘Nothing that deep happens in Paradise Alley. It’s all surface.’ As for Fun House, Tarantino rates Hell Night from the same year as ‘far superior’. I haven’t seen Hell Night, which concerns a fraternity hazing ritual wherein four pledges are dropped off at an (apparently) abandoned mansion, but Roger Ebert’s one-star review plausibly describes it as ‘a relentlessly lackluster example of the Dead Teenager Movie.’
Maybe for some Hell Night is a towering achievement of the New Hollywood era, but while reading page after page about low-budget slasher flicks of modest repute, it is hard not to think of fifty treasures from that extraordinary decade left on the cutting room floor. Of course, much of this may simply boil down to questions of taste. In my view, Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the landmarks of the seventies film – among its enormous strengths: razor-sharp dialogue, bravura location work, and the contributions of the players, including, arguably, Robert Mitchum’s greatest performance. Yates’s Mother, Juggs, & Speed, by contrast, is an unmotivated, incoherent mess, an embarrassment to its distinguished cast, and littered with car crashes about once a reel as if fearful the audience would otherwise nod off (or walk out). In Tarantino’s assessment, Eddie Coyle is ‘overrated’ and Juggs ‘underrated.’ For those who share that view, Cinema Speculation might be a book worth reading.
I had just said "Cut," and I turned to our script supervisor, whose job it was to take notes on the actors' movements, to ask her where Treat's hand had been placed so we could match his position in "take two." The young woman was so transfixed, she had been unable to take her eyes off the snake, and blurted out, "I would go with him, wouldn't you?" Unfortunately, she had stopped taking notes. It's amusing now, but at the time I was furious and almost fired her. Of course, Treat was flattered, and all was forgiven. We had to shoot with his hands in several positions to give the editor options, but it cost time, and, by the end of the week when Treat had to catch a plane, we still hadn't filmed crucial close-ups of Laura standing behind the latched screen door as Arnold tries to "smooth talk" her into opening it. It's a tribute to Laura that, as I read the lines in Treat's place, off-camera, she performed brilliantly. She probably would have done just as well with a lamppost.
Watching dailies each evening was a bit unorthodox since we didn't have enough money to rent a 35mm projector with sound. I didn't care all that much since I knew how the actors had performed, but, this being the days before there were monitors to look at while filming, dailies were my first look at how the scenes had actually turned out. I had set up the shots with Jim Glennon, not just their opening frames but also the direction and speed of the camera moves as well; after that, a third person, the highly skilled "operator," took over. Thanks to Jim, we had Craig Haagensen, a man so finely tuned to the actors that he anticipated their slightest moves and tilted and glided the camera barely a fraction of a second ahead of them.
When I saw the first edit of the film, I thought it was a calamity. All I could see were my mistakes. It was also my first time and a shock to see scenes in public places like diners without background sound although it was I, the director, who had instructed the extras in them to mime their conversations. It had been filmed this way to keep the main dialogue tracks clean so they could be edited without the interference of these added voices. But it contributed to my sense that everything I had shot was phony. But with the addition of "loop group" tracks - actors in a sound studio conversing as though they had been the ones in that diner-and James Taylor's music, I thought it fairly okay until the sound mixer at the Saul Zantz Studio in San Francisco mumbled some disparaging comments as he did his work. Since he had mixed Apocalypse Now and Amadeus, his reaction to the film was chilling.
With hearts made doubly heavy knowing that Sarah, who had been accepted at Andover, would no longer be living with us, Tom and I packed up and flew back home. My brain knew that it was the right school for her, but it didn't make the parting any easier. It would strain our dwindling savings, but we never hesitated. Then Martin phoned to tell me that he had shown the film to Bob Redford who didn't much like it. It was another stab to the heart.
But the news forced me to think about something Tom said when writing the script: if a scene doesn't alter the world of the story, take it out. It suddenly struck me that the first five minutes of the film were just pretty filler, Connie and her girlfriends arriving at a beach and fooling around, hoping to be seen by some guys. I put up a copy of the film and cued it to start on an ominous wide shot of water at dusk that panned to Connie and her two girlfriends as they wake from a nap on the deserted rocky beach and, in a panic at the late hour, start to run towards the exit road. Their scattered dialogue as they try to hitch a ride lets us know that they were at the beach without parental permission and are afraid of the consequences. If we cut out those first five minutes, it would completely alter the viewing experience because we enter a story that has actually begun, and on a darker note. Dissatisfied as well with the story's title which we used for the film, Tom and I spent hours trying, but failing, to come up with a new one. One evening Helen Cole said, "That terrible man just sweet-talked her out the door." Lightbulbs flashed, bells chimed and we suddenly had our title, except that we changed "sweet" to "smooth" since it was closer to Arnold Friend's style.
With a new title of Smooth Talk in place over the recut opening, Martin submitted a print to the Toronto International Film Festival where it was promptly accepted. I flew up the morning of the screening on my own and found my way to a seat way in the back of the theater and on the aisle, ready to make a quick exit when the booing began. My memory of the wave of applause remains overshadowed by a man seeking me out in the lobby and praising the film; it was the director Brian de Palma whose many films I had so admired. I must have blushed as I thanked him, especially when he went on to tell me that I was going to have a big future as a feature film director and needed an agent. Did I have one? To which I responded that the only thing on my mind was to keep myself from being skinned alive. Brian kindly suggested I contact his agent, Marty Bauer, in Los Angeles, adding that he would urge him to represent me if I called. I was barely back home before we heard from the Sundance Film Festival, which Redford had started to showcase independently financed films, and Smooth Talk was invited to be in competition.
As with Toronto, I went out to Park City by myself and spent the week not doing very well at concealing how scared I was, saw very few of the other films in competition and spent most of the time walking from one end of the snow-covered town to the other. Only in its third year, there was still an intimate feel to the festival, the swarms of agents and gliterrati not arriving until a few years later after the low-budget Sex, Lies and Videotape grossed over forty mil- lion dollars. At the closing night awards ceremony, I was so shocked when Smooth Talk was announced Best Dramatic Feature that I might as well have been back in grammar school. I tripped going up the few steps to the stage to be handed my award.
Martin was thrilled by the honor, especially as it made the near- impossible task of finding a distributor less daunting. The best deal offered was from Spectra Film, with its promise to open Smooth Talk in a dozen large cities and expand out from there. Spectra was smart enough to hire the publicist Peggy Siegal, who knew exactly how to stir up the kind of interest that would bring top critics to a handful of private screenings. Not for all the money in the world would I trade that freezing midnight in February, when Tom, Mary Kay and I waited at a newsstand for a bundle of the New York Times to be dropped off by a truck in Times Square, for the ease of reading a review on my laptop in a warm room. Terror turned to joy when we read Vincent Canby's review, especially his grasp of the film's meanings beyond plot.
"In much the same way that Connie evolves from a giggling, supposedly typical teenager into a most singular young woman, the film, as it proceeds, gives increasingly clear definition to a very particular kind of contemporary American life. Though Connie is its focal point, "Smooth Talk' is also about the Wyatt family and what it's like to live in a society that has become one big extended suburb without a 'downtown.' There are shopping malls and movie theaters on highways, but no real center of town, just as the Wyatts have no real center as a family... I'm not at all sure that this is what Miss Chopra and Mr. Cole set out to do but, in filling in some of the blanks in Miss Oates's very lean short story, they've drawn a sharp, devastating picture of America at this time. Like the families in the plays of Sam Shepard, the Wyatts are disconnected from their past, though, unlike Mr. Shepard's characters, they aren't haunted by that awareness."
There's no doubt in my mind that Canby's words brought out the long line winding itself around the corner at the 68th Street Playhouse the next day. Our elation was doubled when a friend in Los Angeles read us an equally glowing review from Sheila Benson in the Los Angeles Times, who hailed the film as "shiveringly memorable." Then, a few weeks later, the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section published Joyce Carol Oates's essay, "Short Story into Film," comparing her story to the film. "Laura Dern is so dazzlingly right as 'my' Connie that I may come to think I modeled the fictitious girl on her, in a way that writers frequently delude themselves about motions of causality." It was startling to read what amounted to her fan letter to us in a big city newspaper, especially since this was the first time we had heard from Joyce since optioning her story. She went on to elaborate on why she doesn't interfere with adaptations of her work. "The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume that they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine."
To put it simply, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War is a devastatingly sad anti-war drama. Based on actual events of the 1966 incident on Hill 192 during the Vietnam War, a Vietnamese woman was kidnapped from her village by a squad of American soldiers who raped and murdered her. It’s essentially about morality and how there is an innate sense of right and wrong in a dire situation like war, or is it all about survival? It’s about following orders or going along with the crowd vs. standing up for some injustice you’ve seen, no matter the cost. It’s also about the brutality of violence, the trauma of war, the brutality of masculinity, and the brutality of misogyny. These are not pleasant subject matters to deal with on screen. Not a film where you gather the family for a night of escapism at the movies. You’ll likely never forget Casualties of War after seeing it, and it’s all the greater because of it.
By 1989, Vietnam pictures had become a staple in American cinema. Films like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket came out with tremendous success and fanfare. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July was released later that year with immense success. They told the horrors of the Vietnam War at a time when Americans were beginning to reexamine that terrible criminal nightmare. By the time Casualties of War came out, it had received some excellent reviews but did not do well at the box office. Critics like Siskel and Ebert liked the film but did not give it as high of marks as they did Platoon. The timing of the release clouded the critical reaction at the time. It also was out during the infamous Summer of 1989 with films like Uncle Buck, Batman, Parenthood, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, Lethal Weapon 2, and Turner & Hooch were going strong. For a film with a genuinely tricky subject matter like the one it portrays to compete with these more mass entertainment films was asking a lot. For De Palma, this came after the tremendous success of The Untouchables. Casualties of War, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, would lead to a career setback for him.
Like most De Palma films, though, Casualties of War has undergone critical reexamination and praise. However, it’s still not considered as significant as more infamous Vietnam films like the ones mentioned above. I’m here to argue that it is just as monumental and maybe one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. I almost hesitate to call it a war film because while there are few battles and action scenes, it’s more about the moral problem faced by our main character and the horror unleashed on an innocent Vietnamese woman. De Palma films in his usual theatrical style which I love a lot. Big set pieces, dramatic music, and appalling beauty. He usually boiled down his films to three or four big visual set pieces. You’ll never come out of a De Palma film not interested in visual storytelling. That’s who De Palma is at heart, is a visual cinematic storyteller. He’s one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, and my love of visual storytelling comes from films like his and Hitchcock.
Hollywood Records has released a digital version of the soundtrack album for the 1998 thriller Snake Eyes directed by Brian De Palma and starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, John Heard, Joel Fabiani, Kevin Dunn and Luis Guzmán. The album features the original score from the Paramount Pictures and Touchstone Pictures production composed by Academy Award winner Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor, The Revenant, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Little Buddha, Femme Fatale). Also included is the song Sin City written and performed by Meredith Brooks. Visit Amazon or any other major digital music services to stream/download the soundtrack. The label has previously released a CD version (which also features an additional song, The Freaky Things by LaKiesha Berri) when the movie opened in theaters in 1998. Snake Eyes is now available on VOD, Blu-ray and DVD.
“Cinema Speculation” is a hardcovered series of essays Tarantino wrote about formative films he watched from the late sixties to the early eighties. Each chapter is presented as a piece of film criticism. Although it also reads as a memoir of a young film geek who tagged along with his mom and her dates watching age-inappropriate films with rowdy crowds. If you wonder how Tarantino developed his oddly hyperkinetic personality, “Speculation” is rich in psychological self-evaluation.
The book also provides insight into a defining modern filmmaker. When Tarantino talks about other movies, he is really identifying films and filmmakers that formed his style. A write-up of Brian De Palma or John Ford reads not so much as objective analysis but rather how those directors influenced Tarantino’s work. In that way, “Cinema Speculation” is not so much film criticism as it is autobiography. Which, frankly, is more valuable than criticism.
Writing about Tarantino’s collection requires us to define what film criticism is. Many mistake it for someone offering their opinion. That’s more like being a film columnist, which is what I do. Although I try and give context to an opinion so the reader can formulate their own decision to watch a movie or read a book or whatever. Criticism is about context. Criticism digs into the history and tastes of the filmmakers. The method of acting style employed by the performer. But criticism doesn’t just concern itself with technicalities. Considerations for evaluating a movie should also include the time and place where it was conceived and later consumed by audiences. All of these factors help define a movie and its place in the larger cultural conversation. That’s criticism.
Using that standard, Tarantino does much more. He does do a good job of explaining why films like “Dirty Harry” or “Taxi Driver” thrived at the time they did. He delves into whether Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is fascist or Paul Schrader’s take on the lone cab driver is meant to be racist.
If you dig into what film critics were saying at the time these films were released, Tarantino isn’t saying anything new. In fact, Tarantino goes out of his way to quote immediate reactions that offered these very arguments. What’s interesting is how the filmmaker talks about these controversies. Tarantino, too, has been accused of racism and glorifying violence. When he defends these films, you hear self-defense. You may not agree with the position taken, but Tarantino makes a vigorous and entertaining case.
When the topic turns to plot points or camera angles, Tarantino talks why this certain scene worked and something else does not. By talking technique, Tarantino offers a glimpse into how he works. He talks about the decisions he would have made had he directed those earlier films. This, again, isn’t criticism, but rather a glimpse into his own moviemaking in a very engaging and entertaining writing style.
If you’re not much of a reader, there are other options to observe Tarantino’s metamorphosis as the co-host of the “Video Achieves” podcast with fellow filmmaker Roger Avary. Both shared the Oscar for writing “Pulp Fiction” and both got their start as clerks at the Video Achieves store in Manhattan Beach. There, a burgeoning QT dazzled customers with his encyclopedic knowledge of every movie known to man. (Indeed much of the Tarantino myth is that he absorbed all of this knowledge and became a legendary director seemingly through osmosis.)
When the store closed, Tarantino bought the entire inventory and now he and Avary spends ninety minutes every week talking about titles they seemingly pluck out of the air.
I’ve listened to every episode and never once been compelled to seek out any of these exploitative grindhouse flicks. What captivates me about the podcast – as well as “Cinema Speculation” – is how Tarantino lets you into his filmmaking mind. Not only that, but Tarantino has such enthusiasm for watching movies. Every filmgoing experience has the promise of something amazing. This certainly is out of vogue for most critics who seem to look for reasons to hate everything they see. I don’t relate to that; Tarantino suspects most critics hate themselves or their job. I don’t disagree so I reject most other critics.
But the unbridled hopefulness endears me to Tarantino, who remains a fan despite going into his fourth decade as a Hollywood veteran that could make anyone a cynic.