Trials of Brian De Palma | Daily News


Trials of Brian De Palma

Obsession (1976)
Obsession (1976)

At the end of De Palma (2015), the American director Brian De Palma, reflecting on his career, the trials he had to undergo, and the compromises he had to make, one after another, walks away from the set, a hunched, overweight, somewhat defeated figure.

It’s a fitting end to a long awaited documentary. De Palma doesn’t try making believers out of his detractors, but it’s an apt take on a career that’s fascinated so many, since, in the words of one of those detractors, Richard Brody (of the New Yorker), De Palma is often seen as a director more fascinating than great. Here’s a director who’s borrowed, in a way lent, and in more ways than one influenced, and that with more than 30 movies over more than 40 years.

There was a time, somewhere in the late 1960s, when the Americans, influenced by the French New Wave of the early part of the decade, took to filmmaking through 15 to 30 minute indie shorts. When they later became makers of feature-length movies, they were adulated in the same terms on which the Nouvelle Vague directors – Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer – had been, venerated as cinematic geniuses, whiz kids.

Brian De Palma was arguably the first in this generation, after whom came the rest: Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, and Spielberg. And yet he has never encountered that adulation on quite the same terms the others have. That’s because De Palma has been a director seen to be more concerned with style over substance. Even in a conventional product like The Untouchables, there are sequences in which you gasp at the technical mastery while foregoing on the more important task of understanding what the story is all about.

It took a long time for that way of making movies to be accepted by critics and, to a certain extent, by popular audiences, because his work was accused of being something or the other: violent, sadistic, egoistic, and misogynistic. Diminished somewhat, De Palma kept on returning, hoping for a bigger comeback, a hit, but he never really joined the ranks of the Spielbergs and the Scorseses; he was more at home with Coppola, who also “went down” in the 1980s, never to resurface or to regain the halo he had lost.

De Palma’s mixed legacy has withstood the test of time. Even today, movies like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out and, probably the most notorious of them all, Body Double, hailed as the classics of moviemaking as they are, nevertheless also receive tepid reviews. “A vile misogynist... A fraudulent work” is how one person puts it. “Fraudulent” here refers to another De Palma trademark: the fact that much of his work seems to be borrowed from Hitchcock. His films teem with references to the works of other directors – something which can be said of many of his contemporaries, including Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin – like Howard Hawks and Michelangelo Antonioni. What results from all that is a cinema of lifelessness.

And yet, I enjoy them. There’s something about these early movies that excite your senses in ways that most commercial movies from that era could not.

The 1970s presented a conundrum for the American cinema, just as the 1960s had: the Oscar baiters and the star-studded casts seemed to belong to the world of the clichéd, melodramatic romances (Airport, Love Story, The Towering Inferno) and adventure epics (Patton) on the one hand, while on the other the works of independent visionaries (M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange, American Graffiti) seemed to be on the rise. Which group would predominate?

The Godfather resolved this impasse in favour of the latter group; it proved that art and commerce could coexist and were no longer polar opposites to be shoved aside at the whims of a studio. Such movies were a treat visually because they gave something new, while borrowing from the old. They related to the future, while relating to the past.

De Palma stood firmly within this conjuncture, though his work had a certain unique touch: in his work, that act of borrowing and paying homage seemed to transcend itself so much that it transcended his own careless attempts at coming up with a coherent plot. In other words, he seemed more bothered with showing the world the debt he owed the past than with actually parsing his storylines and narratives. The past had literally got inside him.

The man didn’t take a long time to get to that level. From 1968 to 1974, he directed eight indie flicks which received wildly oscillating responses. Obsession, made in 1976, was a swirling mass of nothingness; it borrowed its plot entirely from Vertigo; even the score, by Bernard Herrmann (who had composed the music for Vertigo) seemed derivative.

Obsession belongs right up there with Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), and Home Movies (1980), to a career phase where he tried to keep a balance between the demands of the studio and the demands of his craft. Carrie and The Fury are enduring testaments to how well he kept this balance, though he never particularly relished directing the latter.

His next phase began with Dressed to Kill (1980). From Dressed to Kill to Casualties of War (1989), we come across De Palma’s best work. In these movies, his interest in the past graduates from that of an independent artist to that of a serious cinephile. There is an almost childlike, Catholic devotion to the past in a film like Blow Out, with its mishmash of Rear Window and Vertigo and Dial M for Murder and soft-core pornography.

It’s almost as though he’s bothered by the present only in terms of its relation to the past. In Blow Out, which brings together the great Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Out and De Palma’s second film, Greetings, he perfects his techniques – notably, the use of the split screen – to such an extent, it becomes his in a way that none of his previous work, with the exception of Dressed to Kill, could match. He would never again reach that level.

But there’s a rift in these films. It’s a rift even a critic like Pauline Kael (whose name is evoked twice or thrice rather warmly by De Palma in the documentary), willingly overlooked. Despite the childlike and religious devotion, despite the idealism, De Palma’s movies, especially from this era, thrive on a mechanistic worldview.

Even in the delivery of the lines of their characters, you sense that something’s not right. The rhythms are never spontaneous: they are almost zombie-like. Perhaps the best way to sum up this paradox is by considering that Dressed to Kill, nominated at the Golden Globes and the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards, was also nominated in three categories – Worst Director, Worst Actor, and Worst Actress – at the Golden Raspberry Awards. Unresolved, unaddressed, this rift worsens towards the latter part of this phase, especially in The Untouchables.

With a director like Scorsese or Spielberg, there’s a payoff in the end no matter how cynical the endings are. With De Palma, all we have are the tools and tricks of his trade – the techniques, the carefully rehearsed performances (Kael: “De Palma has been accused of being a puppeteer, and doing the actors’ work for them”) – which never transcend that mechanistic, zombie-like quality. Depending on how you see this (and Kael saw it differently), this is either a strength or weakness, but as the years went by it became more of a weakness.

No rift between technique and style on the one hand and narrative power on the other can ever add up to an enduring if not acclaimed work of art. This is why none of De Palma’s movies after Casualties of War (which, in my opinion, is one of the great critiques of US involvement in Vietnam ever filmed) impresses me, with the exception of the only work of his made as a big studio production around that time, Mission: Impossible (1996).

Mission: Impossible is De Palma in patches, but the De Palma touch is there: the expectation that the IMF team will feature throughout the story, “cruelly dashed” when they are all killed just 20 minutes in; the sequence of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his superior Kittridge (Henry Czerny) talking with each other at a restaurant in Prague; and a brief relapse into the De Palma dioptre shot within a conversation between Kittridge and his aide that unfolds right after Hunt steals a list of names from the CIA Headquarters in Langley. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, Mission: Impossible was apt in its selection of De Palma as its director, because the film, like the director, was style over substance, technology over plot, sense over sensibility.

And in the end, as I put it before, it all depends on how you look at it: a strength on the director’s part, or a weakness. In any case, I enjoyed watching De Palma.

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