Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Forty Years of Watching De Palma Films

by Scott Adlerberg

The first Brian De Palma film I saw was Carrie, in 1976, when I was fourteen.  I saw it with my mother of all people; she was already a De Palma fan because she'd seen his Obsession earlier the same year.  I loved Carrie of course, and to this day it remains the only film I've ever seen where I left the theater on trembling legs, courtesy of the final dream scene, still, for my money, one of the greatest pure shocks in movie history.  I remember Obsession being on HBO a year or two after it played in theaters, and in 1978, again with my mother (I should write a book called Seeing De Palma Films with Mom), I saw The Fury, a film as outre as any he's done.  I caught up with earlier De Palma stuff like Hi, Mom and Sisters at New York City revival houses (common then), and in 1980 Dressed to Kill came out (I saw that opening night with a friend).  It's fair to say that by this point, I ranked De Palma among my very favorite directors.

Thirty six years later, his status in my mind hasn't changed.  Through many more films, some great, some okay, a couple disappointing (none dull, not even his failures), my estimation of Brian De Palma has never diminished. He's a great filmmaker who tells stories visually, and the words that come to mind when I think of my forty years watching his films are exhilarating, surprising, disorienting, funny, beautiful, fluid. The split screen shots, the slow motion sequences, the long gliding camera takes -- De Palma's techniques are well-known by now, but he's never failed to keep refining them.  His sense of the bravura has never abandoned him.  You can watch Sisters from 1973, Blow Out from 1981, Raising Cain from 1992 or Femme Fatale from 2002 and see within minutes that each could only be a De Palma film.  Did I mention, too, that he's playful? That his films can be outrageous fun?  That he's one of cinema's supreme tricksters?  Well, hereby mentioned. If ever there was a director who you feel gets a kick from playing with the audience and messing with audience expectations, it's Brian De Palma.

I'm well aware, naturally, that he has his detractors.  In fact, as directors go, De Palma has to rank among the most polarizing.  He's a true "love him or hate him" director, and among friends, people I've seen his films with, I don't think there's another filmmaker I've argued about more. A lot has been leveled at De Palma - the accusations of misogyny, the criticisms for the violence and gore, the claim that he keeps ripping off Hitchcock.  Among friends of mine, the most common attacks have centered around how "illogical" his films are, how implausible the plots, how his films make precious little sense and show no talent for coherent storytelling.  What I've found strange about this critique is that it admits De Palma is not as much like Hitchcock as his detractors state. Hitchcock was big on Fridge Logic. He didn't want you watching his film believing the story but then realizing in retrospect, when you went to your fridge for a snack late at night, that there were story inconsistencies.  In his thrillers especially, De Palma is not that concerned about Fridge Logic; neither are the implausibilities there because it's the best a hack director can do. For De Palma, dispensing at times with narrative logic, it's not linearity that's most important. As he says, what you get with him are reflections and refractions. He's preoccupied with the thin barrier between reality and fantasy, what's before us and what might not be, the apparent and the illusory. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is an influence. So is the great Spanish surrealist director Luis Bunuel. De Palma incorporates what he's learned from others to make films entirely his own, but somehow for quite a few people, he's still that guy who stole Hitchcock's tricks without having Hitchcock's talent. How this criticism persists is beyond me, considering that, over the course of his career, for better or worse, he's made films in so many genres, from the early anarchic comedies like Greetings to the musical horror film Phantom of the Paradise to the thrillers to Scarface to Carlito's Way to Casualties of War to The Untouchables and Mission Impossible.

I say all this now because I'm in a De Palma state of mind. Over the weekend, I made a point of going out to see the new documentary De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.  It runs 107 minutes and is set up as one long monologue by De Palma, discussing his entire career from his first shorts to his 1968 debut feature, The Wedding Party, to his most recent film, Passion (2012). De Palma proves to be an entertaining and forthright guide to his work; he talks about it without false modesty but doesn't gloss over things in his films he could have done better. With wit and equanimity, he discusses films where the production clicked and the film did well  - Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables - and films that failed for one reason or another - The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars.  And he doesn't stint on the anecdotes about various people he's worked with.  It's a fascinating trip through a long career, and De Palma's own take on Hitchcock's influence on him is the best take on the matter I've heard yet. Then there are his thoughts on the 1970’s and the film culture of that time, when his cinematic pals were Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. I never knew De Palma chipped in on editing a scene from Mean Streets. Or that casting for Carrie and Star Wars went on simultaneously, with Lucas and De Palma testing some of the same actors. Or that a little later Spielberg spent time on the Scarface set, saying "Why not?" when De Palma suggested putting a camera in a certain spot. But Spielberg did. Amusing story.  It's one of several you'll hear if you see De Palma, a movie that's a cinema buff's dream and that for me at least was a perfect way to celebrate four decades of watching and re-watching Brian De Palma's movies.

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