CELEBRATING CENTENARY WITH PASSAGES FROM HER REVIEWS OF DE PALMA FILMS
Earlier today, James Wolcott tweeted, "Since it's her birthday and all: Wish someone would do for De Palma's Domino what Pauline Kael did for Peckinpah's The Killer Elite". While Adam Nayman arguably provides a glimpse of what Kael might have thought about Domino, quoting from her review of De Palma's The Fury, we can take a look at a sample of her words about De Palma's cinema over the years she was writing film criticism:
Their plan is to have her elected prom queen and then humiliate her publicly. What we see that they don’t see is the depth of Carrie’s desire to be accepted by them. Her joy at having Tommy, the most popular boy in the class, ask her to the prom and at becoming prom queen transforms her; her home life is so horrible that this is her first taste of feeling beautiful, and she’s a radiant Cinderella. De Palma, a master sadist, prolongs her moments of happiness; he slows the action down to a trance while we wait for the trap to be sprung, knowing that it will unloose her bottled-up telekinetic anger. It’s a beautiful plot—a teen-age Cinderella’s revenge. “Carrie” becomes a new trash archetype, and De Palma, who has the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies, points up its archetypal aspects by parodying the movies that have formed it—and outclassing them...
...The director James Whale worked sophisticated parody into some of his horror films, such as “The Old Dark House,” in 1932, and “The Bride of Frankenstein,” in 1935, but I don’t think that before “Carrie” anyone had ever done a satiric homage to exploitation films. Who but De Palma would think of using old-movie trash, and even soft-core pornos, to provide “heart” for a thriller? The banal teenage-movie meanness that the kids show toward Carrie gets the audience rooting for her, and it becomes the basis for her supernatural vengeance. This is the first time a De Palma picture has had heart—which may explain why De Palma, despite his originality, has never made it into the big winners’ circle before. I liked the surreal sophomoric humor of his 1968 X-rated “Greetings,” with its draft-dodger hero; the style was deliberately offhand. In those days, De Palma didn’t move the camera much; he used a lot of single-camera setups that went on for several minutes—he let the actors play out their scenes. When he did move the camera, sometimes the movement was itself a gag—a parody of film “magic.” His early films were cheaply made and badly distributed, but even so they didn’t score with young audiences as they should have scored. Maybe this was the audiences’ fault as much as his. Like some others of us, he probably assumed that counterculture movie-lovers had much hipper tastes than they turned out to have; they didn’t go for the old patriotic, pro-war sentimentality, but they wanted more emotion and romance than De Palma, with his sense of the ridiculous, provided. However, he was always primarily a creator of comedy, an entertainer, so if the audience wouldn’t change, he had to.
By the time of “Obsession,” De Palma had dropped his theatrical play-out-the-scene style; rock had unified the wild “Phantom of the Paradise,” but the camera itself did it for “Obsession.” He made a romantic movie without, as far as I can judge, a single romantic impulse; he was proving that he could tell a fluid, rhythmed story—that he could master camera magic. It was all calculation—camera movements designed to make an audience swoon. If the De Palma spirit was barely in evidence in “Obsession,” that was because the romantic conception operated on only one level; it lacked humor—this is where Paul Schrader, its scenarist, is weak (a weakness compensated for by the director and actors in Schrader’s “Taxi Driver”). And “Obsession” lacked good, cheap dirt. In “Greetings,” Allen Garfield had hawked stag films; De Niro was a voyeur making Peep Art films in both “Greetings” and De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!” After the rarefied phoniness of “Obsession,” De Palma has come back to his own exploitation themes in “Carrie;” the voyeur has got into the girls’ locker room this time, bringing that romanticizing, hypnotic camera with him. De Palma was always a sexual wit; now he’s a voluptuary wit, with the camera coming very close to Sissy Spacek’ s body, and with closeups of her wraithlike, hair-veiled face. We know her skin better than we know our own.
The technique is so absorbing that I don’t think I blinked during “Carrie.” I assume that a virtuoso combination of the spiky editing of Paul Hirsch and the special effects by Gregory M. Auer is what gives us images such as Carrie’s eye exploding a car. Mario Tosi’s slithering cinematography seemed especially effective in Carrie’s California-gothic home, and I assume that the art directors, William Kenny and Jack Fisk, made that possible. The music for “Obsession” was so emotive that the picture drowned in its score; the Pino Donaggio music for “Carrie” is modest and inoffensive, though more derivative than one might like. There are only a few places where the film seems to err in technique. The speeded-up sound when the high-school boys are trying on tuxedos is a dumb, toy effect. And at the prom, when Carrie sees red, the split-screen footage is really bad: the red tint darkens the image, and there’s so much messy action going on in the split sections that the confusion cools us out. But the film is built like a little engine, and it gets to us.
For a sophisticated, absurdist intelligence like De Palma’s, there’s no way to use camera magic except as foolery. He’s uncommitted to anything except successful manipulation; when his camera conveys the motion of dreams, it’s a lovely trick. He can’t treat a subject straight, but that’s all right; neither could Hitchcock. If De Palma were an artist in another medium—say, fiction or poetry—he might be a satirist with a high reputation and a small following. Everything in his films is distanced by his persistent adolescent kinkiness; he’s gleefully impersonal. Yet, working in movies, he’s found his own route to a mass audience: his new trash heart is the ultimate De Palma joke.
Phantom Of The Paradise, The New Yorker, 1974
This mixture of The Phantom of the Opera and Faust isn't enough for De Palma. He heaps on layers of acid-rock satire and parodies of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Psycho, and The Picture of Dorian Gray—and the impacted plots actually function for him. The film is a one-of-a-kind entertainment, with a kinetic, breakneck wit. The cinematographer, Larry Pizer, keeps the images full to overflowing, and the set designer, Jack Fisk, supplies striking takeoffs of the frenzied decor of German silent films.
Blow Out, The New Yorker, 1981 (via Criterion)
De Palma has been learning how to make every move of the camera signify just what he wants it to, and now he has that knowledge at his fingertips. The pyrotechnics and the whirlybird camera are no longer saying “Look at me”; they give the film authority. When that hooting owl fills the side of the screen and his head spins around, you’re already in such a keyed-up, exalted state that he might be in the seat next to you. The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, working with his own team of assistants, does night scenes that look like paintings on black velvet so lush you could walk into them, and surreally clear daylight vistas of the city—you see buildings a mile away as if they were in a crystal ball in your hand. The colors are deep, and not tropical, exactly, but fired up, torrid. Blow Out looks a lot like The Fury; it has that heat, but with greater depth and definition. It’s sleek and it glows orange, like the coils of a heater or molten glass—as if the light were coming from behind the screen or as if the screen itself were plugged in. And because the story centers on sounds, there is a great care for silence. It’s a movie made by perfectionists (the editor is De Palma’s longtime associate Paul Hirsch, and the production design is by Paul Sylbert), yet it isn’t at all fussy. De Palma’s good, loose writing gives him just what he needs (it doesn’t hobble him, like some of the writing in The Fury), and having Zsigmond at his side must have helped free him to get right in there with the characters.
De Palma has been accused of being a puppeteer and doing the actors’ work for them. (Sometimes he may have had to.) But that certainly isn’t the case here. Travolta and Nancy Allen are radiant performers, and he lets their radiance have its full effect; he lets them do the work of acting too. Travolta played opposite Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and they seemed right as a team; when they act together, they give out the same amount of energy—they’re equally vivid. In Blow Out, as soon as Jack and Sally speak to each other, you feel a bond between them, even though he’s bright and soft-spoken and she looks like a dumb-bunny piece of fluff. In the early scenes, in the hospital and the motel, when the blonde, curly-headed Sally entreats Jack to help her, she’s a stoned doll with a hoarse, sleepy-little-girl voice, like Bette Midler in The Rose—part helpless, part enjoying playing helpless. When Sally is fully conscious, we can see that she uses the cuddly-blonde act for the people she deals with, and we can sense the thinking behind it. But then her eyes cloud over with misery when she knows she has done wrong. Nancy Allen takes what used to be a good-bad-girl stereotype and gives it a flirty iridescence that makes Jack smile the same way we in the audience are smiling. She balances depth and shallowness, caution and heedlessness, so that Sally is always teetering—conning or being conned, and sometimes both. Nancy Allen gives the film its soul; Travolta gives it gravity and weight and passion.
Pauline Kael interview from 2001 with Francis Davis, The Guardian
I keep seeing movies I think are interesting that nobody is praising. Three Kings, in particular, got some good reviews, but nothing like it deserved. I thought Mission to Mars had some extraordinary sequences in it. I'm always attacked for liking Brian De Palma so much, and it's a very uneven, erratic movie. But about half of it is superb, and I can't understand why more people didn't recognise that.