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Domino is
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De Palma on Domino
"It was not recut.
I was not involved
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musical recording
sessions, the final
mix or the color
timing of the
final print."

Listen to
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The passing of Ted Kennedy has inspired at least two bloggers to recall Brian De Palma's Blow Out, which had definite echoes of the infamous Chappaquiddick incident from 1969. In that incident, following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Mary Jo Kopechne was found dead inside Kennedy's overturned car, which was submerged in a tidal channel. Kennedy had left the scene of the incident, and later said that the night before, he had taken a wrong turn and accidentally drove off a bridge and into the water. A scandal quickly took hold, and Kennedy's presidential hopes seemed forever scarred by the whole affair. Conspiracy theories emerged, as well, as Kennedy had apparently driven down the original road (before he made that "wrong turn") on several occasions, and also altered his story in a televised address about a week later.

Jordon Hoffman at UGO Movie Blog today wrote a "thank you" to Kennedy "for Brian De Palma's Blow Out." After listing several TV and films that feature Ted Kennedy-types, Hoffman writes: The death of a prostitute and its subsequent cover-up in Fredo Corleone’s brothel in Godfather II was certainly meant as an echo to the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969.

One film, however, took Chappaquiddick and ran all the way with it. And it’s a great film, too. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out from 1981 is, for me, the swan song of the great paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. These films, kickstarted by John Frankenheimer with The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds include The Parallax View, The Conversation, Chinatown and Three Days of the Condor. If you haven’t seen all of these titles, see them now. They are fantastic. The genre still exists (Enemy of the State, David Mamet’s Spartan and Eagle Eye all have their value) but Blow Out was the last true masterpiece of the genre.

So, what is Blow Out? Wasn’t that a show about a hair stylist? Blow Out, starring the not-yet-embarrassing John Travolta, is a true film-lover’s film. In it, Travolta plays a post-production sound engineer for low budget horror pictures - working out of Philadelphia of all places. One night he is out recording ambient sound on his Paleolithic analogue sound equipment and he witnesses an auto accident. A Governor with Presidential aspirations and his pretty young thing end up in the drink. What at first seems like a tire blowing out is soon discovered to be a gun shot.

Travolta then uses the power of cinema to expose a massive government conspiracy. Indeed, not until 2009 and the release of Inglourious Basterds will we see the nuts and bolts of pure cinema so deliberately conquer evil.

But as our hero is splicing, mixing, animating still photos and changing reels (AVIDs be damned! Fetch me my razor and sticky tape!) De Palma exposes another great conspiracy: how the magic of the movies is made. Once we get to the final act, and the split-screens, color saturation, tracking shots and slo-mo are flying in ever direction, we find ourselves in pure film lover paradise.

So, yes, Teddy Kennedy. I know I should be thanking you for the health care reform and the advancement of civil rights. But I’d be lying to myself (and to you) if I didn’t say that you’ve touched me most by inspiring Brian De Palma to create Blow Out, one of my favorite whacked-out thrillers of all time.

In a brief post titled "Ted Kennedy and the Cinema," the New Yorker's Richard Brody recalls how Kennedy's presidential hopes were dashed in 1980:

I remember the hope that we liberal Democrats held, in 1980, that he’d prevail in a floor fight at the Convention. It wasn’t so, and Ronald Reagan was the result. So the tight chain of causality seemed to my callow young self, at least. Well, he wasn’t President, but the next year, he was a movie: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, starring John Travolta as a sound recordist who (shades of Antonioni’s Blow-Up) studies a tape for evidence that a Chappaquiddick-like accident he coincidentally recorded was actually a plot. In De Palma’s film, it’s the politician who dies and his female passenger who survives; I was happy to see Travolta in a new sort of role, but disappointed that De Palma didn’t stick closer to docu-drama. Sometimes an accident is just an accident; the randomness of life is what the cinema, or, rather, its screenwriters, have more trouble with. And maybe what people everywhere have trouble with: there’s the desire to think of history as the product of intelligent design, too, even when its presumed designers are often malevolent.

Posted by Geoff at 11:58 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, August 27, 2009 12:02 AM CDT
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

As far as I'm concerned, Inglourious Basterds is one of the main reasons Quentin Tarantino was called upon to make movies. 

(By the way, if you care about SPOILERS, read no further.)

From the time I saw Inglourious Basterds for the first time this past Saturday, one image that keeps sticking in my mind is one of the last images in the film-- the "Little Man" dutifully scalping a just-killed Nazi, looking up at Lt. Aldo Raine to answer the latter's semi-rhetorical question about the unacceptable possibility that Hans Lando might eventually remove his Nazi uniform. The "Little Man" (as the Nazis have nicknamed him) exudes a Hawksian professionalism in his scalping of the Nazi, and barely blinks when distracted momentarily by Raine's question, as if he is doing nothing less mundane than, say, preparing a salad, or tying a shoe. He's done this somewhere around a hundred times or more during this war, and has obviously become quite good at it.

Perfecting a practice or proccess is a major theme that runs through Inglourious Basterds, and it extends to Tarantino himself. When Raine puts the finishing touches on Lando and claims that this scar, which he has been perfecting by practicing on various subjects throughout his mission, may just be his masterpiece, the next thing we see is the credit that says the film was written and directed by Tarantino. This is the film where Tarantino knows he has reached a pinnacle of what he can do with his work—he knows what he did with Death Proof, he knows what the view of his oeuvre is by various factions of critics, and he knows exactly what he is doing with Inglourious Basterds. In this film, the next best thing to being told by the Führer that you may indeed have just done your best work yet (a proclamation which brings Tarantino's version of Joseph Goebbels to hilariously maudlin tears) is knowing that, indeed, the Führer of your own mind knows you may have just completed your own best work.

But there are masterpieces, and then there are masterpieces-- Shoshanna's suicide-mission of a film is a masterpiece on a whole different level, creating a work of revenge by filming her announcement of death to the Nazis who have gathered in her theater, and splicing that announcement into the middle of the exhilarating climax of Goebbels' masterpiece, "Nation's Pride" (this film-within-the-film, a parody of Nazi propaganda, was in real life directed by Eli Roth). The Nazis stand up and shout at the screen when Shoshanna's face and voice interrupt the drama of their war hero. Just as Shoshanna gets her own (posthumous, as it turns out) revenge on cinema by having created her own jarring cinema, Tarantino gets his cinematic revenge on Paul Schrader by giving a proper home to David Bowie's theme from Schrader's Cat People. The song itself (subtitled Putting Out Fire), which in the new film becomes a theme for Shoshanna, is a bit jarring to the viewer, especially as it brings to mind a completely different film and genre. Tarantino had been disappointed by the way Schrader had thrown the song over the closing credits to Cat People. Tarantino told Miami Herlad film critic Rene Rodriguez, "I remember working at the Video Archives at the time and thinking 'If I had a song like that for my movie, I'd build a 20-minute scene around it!' So I guess I did."

Those are just some initial thoughts I have on the film from seeing it once-- perhaps I will write more on it later. Suffice it to say, the film is worth seeing again.

Scenes in the climax, where everybody is locked inside the theater as it is burning, do indeed have the look (and sometimes the feel) of the prom-on-fire climax of Brian De Palma's Carrie, especially the colors. A commentor on this blog, "LUU" from France, also noted the Carrie similarities, and then added:

In the projection room, at the end, there is an hommage to Blow Out, the image of Travolta sitting in front of a pile of films. When Shoshanna opened a door the camera goes through the wall just like in Blow Out. There is also this mythical image of "Scarface shooting people" at the very end. (And probably Femme Fatale).

I am not sure what he meant by the Femme Fatale reference, but there you have it.

Posted by Geoff at 12:41 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 28, 2009 3:17 AM CDT
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Monday, August 24, 2009
When Joan MacIntosh portrayed Dionysus' aunt Agave in Richard Schechner's Dionysus In '69, itself a 1968 adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae, she was twenty-something years old. Now in her sixties, she is playing the same role in a new version of the play directed by Joanne Akalaitis (and with music by Phillip Glass), now running through August 30th at the Public Theater's Shakespeare In The Park in New York. MacIntosh was once married to Schechner, and of course, De Palma's film of the 1968 production was released in 1970. This latest version of Dionysus is getting mixed reviews, but Theater Mania's Andy Propst likes it, and has priase for MacIntosh's performance:

But the greatest tragedy belongs to the spellbound Agave, who returns to the city proudly holding her son's head, announcing that she has killed a young lion. It's a horrific moment, made all the more so by MacIntosh's fierce commitment to the woman's wild delusion.

And while several reviews find that the show's biggest problem is finding relevance in modern society (see the reviews at Backstage and the New York Times, the latter of which calls the production "toothless"), Propst noted an interesting element of the stage design:

John Conklin's scenic design, an arc of bleachers that's backed by jutting beams, suggests the rubble at the World Trade Center. Indeed, this visual only reinforces one's sense that The Bacchae remains a call to moderation in the face of the incomprehensible.

I also have to mention the amusing anecdotes regarding raccoons rustling about amidst the outdoors production. Ben Brantley at the New York Times themes his review with the raccoons, while the Financial Times' Brendan Lemon actually felt the tug of a raccoon and looked down to see the animal "hopping up and down and nibbling on my right shoe."

Posted by Geoff at 11:36 PM CDT
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Saturday, August 22, 2009
John Kenneth Muir continued his weekly essays about Brian De Palma films last week with a look at Body Double, delving deeply into the issue of mysogyny often leveled at that film. This week, Muir looks at Blow Out-- here is a key excerpt:

In Blow Out's most ironic and mocking use of iconic American imagery, Jack arrives too late to save Sally from Burke, but De Palma's camera triumphantly spins around the tragic duo nonetheless. As an "average" citizen dies below so the powerful may continue to "serve," in the heavens above fireworks explode with orgasmic glee and abandon.

The illusion of freedom and liberty are alive for all to see in the sky, even if Sally (and the truth...) die right here; their ends acknowledged only by Jack.

Sally's personal story in Blow Out also serves as a metaphor for disillusionment and disenfranchisement in America. Sally begins her journey as a disinterested observer, just minding her own business trying to make a buck any way she can. She doesn't even watch the news "because it is too depressing." When Sally finally does get involved in the "political process," in a quest with Jack to reveal the truth about this conspiracy, what happens? She is brutally murdered.

In this case, a murdered innocent in a movie may very well represent a disappointed, disillusioned electorate in real life. Most people don't get involved in politics, and those activists who do so inevitably face disappointment because things don't seem to change, or get any better. The parties in power may alternate, but the entrenched interests don't. Killing Sally in Blow Out is, essentially, killing hope in the democratic process; it's killing political involvement. From a certain perspective, there are no real "good guys" in Blow Out because even the guy in "search of the truth," -- Jack himself -- exploits the simple-minded Sally (representing the American electorate) for his own purpose. He ruthlessly uses her for his ideological agenda...and she ends up dead, even though that agenda was inarguably noble.

Posted by Geoff at 11:32 PM CDT
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Friday, August 21, 2009

Posted by Geoff at 3:37 AM CDT
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Thursday, August 20, 2009
At left, Quentin Tarantino lists his 20 favorite films to come out since he made his first feature, Reservoir Dogs, 17 years ago. In talking about the list to Straight.com's Ian Caddell, Tarantino compares the "friendly rivalry" between himself and Paul Thomas Anderson to that between Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese:

“I actually made it a point to write down my favourite films of the last 17 years, which is when I started directing, and I am happy to say it was hard to break it down to 20,” Tarantino recalls during an interview in a Los Angeles hotel room. “I was delighted to find I wanted to have at least 30. I had to make some tough decisions. I think that shows there are a lot of great filmmakers out there doing terrific work. The one who immediately comes to mind is Paul Thomas Anderson. I feel that I am [Marlon] Brando to his Montgomery Clift. Brando was better because he knew Montgomery Clift was out there, and Clift was better because he knew fucking Brando was always there.

“I remember when I met Brian De Palma, who was always a hero of mine, and he was saying that he had a friendly rivalry with Martin Scorsese. He was shooting Scarface, and on one of his days off he went to see Raging Bull. He said that just seeing that classic opening shot with the rain and the slow motion of Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta dancing, he thought, ‘There is always Scorsese. No matter how well you do and how good you think you are, there is always Scorsese staring back at you.’”

Tarantino was a fan of unique filmmaking styles before he ever directed a movie himself, and that holds true today. He says that while he may be Brando to Anderson’s Clift, there are several other contemporaries who have made an impression on him. “I really like some of the directors who have come along in the last two decades—people like Paul and Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, and not just because they are friends. I am not friends with David Fincher but I love his work. I think right now the most exciting cinema in the world is coming out of Korea. I think Memories of Murder and The Host by Bong Joon-ho will definitely be on that best-20 films list.”

Speaking of Scarface, The Oxford Times' Damon Smith states that Inglourious Basterds includes "a cinema shootout that conjures memories of Brian De Palma’s Scarface."

Posted by Geoff at 4:55 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, August 20, 2009 10:50 PM CDT
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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf suggested to Quentin Tarantino that his new film, Inglourious Basterds, is heavily influenced by Brian De Palma's Carrie, and Tarantino could see where he was coming from. Here's the excerpt from Rothkopf's article:

“It’s actually fun for me to be analytical,” Tarantino offers, adding that he may yet end up a reviewer. “And when I write, I still have my Sergio Leone–itis, whereby no character can show up without having his 20-minute introduction.” Invoking the Italian maker of epic spaghetti Westerns whom Tarantino still places at the top of his pantheon, he deftly cuts to the core of Inglourious Basterds: a war movie in decor and subject, but one laced with lengthy battles of wit and words that build to deliriously tense highs, much like Leone’s expertly edited mano a manos.The new movie is being marketed as a Brad Pitt “men-on-a-mission” action film, but it’s actually dominated by gab, flirtation, geeky tangents about German cinema and a drunken barroom card game.

Bring this false advertising to Tarantino’s attention and he’ll smile. “That’s kind of my way,” he explains. “Whatever sets me on a course to write a movie is usually pretty thin: a heist movie, a martial-arts movie, whatever. But then the idea is to go beyond that, to bust down the walls of genre. It’s only now that I could tell you that there’s more to Basterds than I thought. This movie is about language, duplicity.” I suggest to him that it’s also about Brian De Palma’s Carrie, especially the fiery climax, and Tarantino agrees vigorously. “With Nazis as opposed to mean high-schoolers—sure!”

Yet another viewer of Inglourious Basterds was reminded of De Palma (as well as Leone). Kyle Smith blogs that "portions of the movie are pure Sergio Leone," and that "the long tracking shots that take us from room to room remind me of Brian De Palma." Looking forward to seeing it.

Posted by Geoff at 11:48 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 11:50 PM CDT
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Monday, August 17, 2009
Tim Smith at The Baltimore Sun ran a story yesterday about a group of recent college grads who are gearing up to stage Gründlehämmer, a rock opera with laughs, gore, and 15 songs. Co-writers John DeCampos (who also contributed to the music) and Aran Keating (who is also directing) originally proposed making a stage version of Brian De Palma's Phantom Of The Paradise. After Gründlehämmer finishes its single-weekend run from October 2-4 (at Baltimore's 2640 Space), DeCampos would still like to pursue the Phantom Of The Paradise idea. More information is available at the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS). Curiously, there are two "songs" available for preview on the site, but when either of them is played, the files consist of a seemingly identical six seconds of drumming-- could be a little prank, as the society members seem a tad irreverent.

Posted by Geoff at 12:22 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 16, 2009
A digital version of Brian De Palma's Scarface was released in U.K. cinemas this weekend. A couple of U.K. critics had some interesting takes on the rerelease, with one suggesting that Scarface is the "definitive" film of the '80s, while the other finds tongue-in-cheek relevence to the current political atmosphere.

The Guardian's John Patterson

It's not the best film of the decade (that might be Raging Bull) or the most influential (except among gangsta rappers), or the most elegantly crafted (good god, no), but somehow Scarface manages, both intentionally and utterly accidentally, to capture the 1980s' atmosphere of unflagging greed, moral emptiness and materialistic crassness to a tee. It's as irreducibly 80s as Reagan's black plastic hairdo, Madonna's bustier and the Jane Fonda Workout.

Scarface is a movie with all its dials twisted up to 11. No one does lines of cocaine (a loathsome drug for a loathsome era), they do piles of cocaine; chainsaws are brandished, not switchblades; the vague, censor-baiting hints at Borgia-syle incest in the original morph here into Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio screaming at her brother, "Ya wanna fuck me, huh, Tony? Huh?"

But Tony is a fully-fledged 1980s-style unzipped capitalist go-getter, worthy of admiration given the Friedman-fundamentalist economic fumes wafting through the zeitgeist back then; he's a Horatio Alger hero with a hole through his septum, he's Arkan in the making.

The List's Paul Dale

All of which makes this brilliant, cold-blooded masterpiece rather a strange proposition at a time when President Obama is opening up relations with the seemingly progressive sibling Raúl Castro. Myth has it that during his time as 46th Vice President of the United States in the Bush era, Dick Cheney liked to spend his downtime staring at a corporately revised map of Cuba which showed which US conglomerate would go where come the day that the US colonise the Caribbean island again. Could it be that Universal has been promised a spec there? A little place in the sun to wait out another Depression? Where multimillion-dollar mergers can be brokered by Skype and movies can be made for a tenth of the price? Could the re-release of Scarface be the beginning of their chainsaw wielding march on Cuba? Either way it’s great to see you again Tony.

Posted by Geoff at 12:22 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, August 16, 2009 12:24 AM CDT
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Thursday, August 13, 2009
John Kenneth Muir continued his weekly look at the films of Brian De Palma last week with an essay about Raising Cain, which he calls "a satire, exposing the schizophrenic, contradictory messages sometimes sent by our culture to men of the day." Muir writes that the multiple personalities inside Carter (all played by John Lithgow) reflect the era's crisis in masculinity, leading to the inevitable transformation from a man into a woman:

Carter's many alternate personalities also expose further the crisis in masculinity. Cain is seen as inherently disreputable. He's a smoker for one thing (another big no-no in the Age of Political Correctness), and he's also, well, psychotic. Yet, Cain is the "man of action." Carter outsources his dirty work to Cain, because as a "sensitive" modern male he is deemed incapable of protecting himself or his family. When Carter gets into trouble attempting to subdue Karen, a local mother, Cain suggests that Carter kiss her to allay the suspicions of passers-by. This is something that would never occur to the diffident Carter on his own; but a solution which jumps out immediately to Cain. Cain is Id, through and through. The voice we all hear, but rarely act upon.

Yet another of Carter's personalities, Josh, has regressed to boyhood. He's a terrified child, one constantly fearing the wrath of his father. Again -- not entirely unlike Carter -- Josh is an image of masculinity reverted to a "harmless" or impotent stage, pre-adolescent, and therefore pre-sexual.

Finally, the guardian of the children is the personality named Margo. Importantly, Margo is female. Margo rescues Amy, destroys the Elder Dr. Nix, and restores order. It is a woman, therefore, who finally usurps the role of "hero"/"conqueror" in modern America. Carter can only become a hero when he is...female. The film's valedictory shot is of a looming, powerful Margo, standing heroically behind his family (Jenny and Amy). Carter could only be himself (a caring individual and care-giver) when in the personality and guise of a woman...and the last shot explains this visually. Margo is not menacing; not evil. She is triumphant.

Muir also describes the way De Palma uses space, movement, and the unbroken take to represent Carter's multiple personalities:

When all this back-and-forth must at last be explained to the just-barely-keeping up audience, De Palma proceeds in snake-like, coiled fashion. He brilliantly stages an elaborate, lengthy tracking shot (approximately five minutes in duration) that follows two police detectives and Dr. Waldheim from the top floor of a police station down two stair-cases, through an elevator, down into the morgue,...where the shot ends on a close-up of a corpse's horrified expression of horror.

All throughout this masterful, unbroken shot, Waldheim explains the history of the Nix family and the theories underlying multiple personality disorders. She basically describes the events of the movie (Cain vs. Carter) in a fashion that makes sense out of perspective we've witnessed thus far. It's a journey from the top of Carter's mind, literally, to the bottom...to Cain's mind, where we spy his murderous handiwork (the corpse).

De Palma understands that form must echo content, and so the form of his film -- multiple perspectives coming together -- reflects the flotsam and jetsam Carter's splintered mind. The virtuoso unbroken shot is Waldheim's tour of that mind, a narrative maze of twists and turns, of science and ultimately death. But importantly, this tour is an unbroken one (like Waldheim's dissertation), making linear sense of the tale for the viewer.

Posted by Geoff at 12:00 AM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 14, 2009 1:13 AM CDT
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