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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 28, 2013 at 1:52PM

Few film directors are as polarizing as Brian De Palma, whose new film, the already argued-over "Passion," opens this week (read our review from Venice here). Hailed by some as an American visionary and a modern master of suspense, capable of gorgeously realized visual feats, De Palma is derided by others as a overtly referential hack who has based almost his entire career on a single trick: ripping off Alfred Hitchcock. But as "Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible," the new scholarly text on the director by Chris Dumas, points out, this divisiveness is at least partially his own doing. De Palma is a director who once claimed that he wanted to be "the American Godard" and talked openly about "the revolution" on national television (fun fact: he was once shot by a cop), yet went on to create fizzy popcorn entertainments that were occasionally boycotted for their perceived misogyny (at least two of his movies spawned honest-to-god, organized revolts).
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Hi Mom

Hi, Mom!” (1970)
While an arch and devilish sense of humor is key to understanding the stylish, over-the-top second half of De Palma's career, one has to wonder if ‘70s cinephiles lamented the end of his irreverent, reckless, scruffy and '60s-inspired groovy style that spanned his early career and ended with "Greetings" (and to a lesser extent "Get To Know Your Rabbit"). Continuing De Palma's amusing socio-political exploration, the filmmaker's fourth feature is a counter-cultural comedy/quasi sequel to “Greetings,” this time focusing on Jon Rubin, the peeping tom/aspiring filmmaker played by Robert De Niro (Allen Garfield also essentially reprises a similar role of the smut peddler). A media satire and send-up, “Hi Mom!” centers on Rubin (a Vietnam vet of course), back in New York finding his voyeuristic tendencies (De Palma preoccupation alert!) have taken on a more demented bent. Once Rubin gets involved with adult porn magnate John Barren (Garfield), he hatches a plan to shoot pornographic pictures by filming his unsuspecting neighbors; going as far as dating a girl next door and attempting to time their lovemaking to his calculating camera. With appearances by Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning and actor-turned-filmmaker Paul Bartel ("Eating Raoul"), “Hi Mom!” is almost two movies in one, with its second half taking on an angry, politically charged mood in a completely different cinema verite style (this character could easily be a precursor to Travis Bickle). It’s as if the movie takes a “Vertigo”-esque turn (Hitchcock preoccupation alert!), and changes gears as Rubio becomes increasingly violent and urban guerilla-esque. When his porn-career plan fails, the disillusioned veteran turns to a radical theater group simply to fit in somewhere. Cue black face and white face segments that are pretty visceral and the famous “Be Black, Baby” section, shot in documentary style that could be a movie unto itself (black radicals interview Caucasians about the meaning of being black). Structurally, the wild and ungainly narrative falls apart, but “Hi Mom!” is a complex and ambitious send-up of political extremism, white guilt and media perception. Even when it doesn’t work. [B]

Dionysus

"Dionysus in '69" (1970)
This pseudo-documentary focuses on The Performance Group, an experimental New York City theater troupe that would later be known as The Wooster Group, as they perform the titular play, an adaptation of the ancient Greek theatrical piece "The Bacchae." The entire movie is captured via one of De Palma's favorite stylistic flourishes: split screen. The movie was shot, edited, and directed by De Palma and was entered into competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Since the festival, though, it's rarely been screened and remains a coveted relic amongst DePalmaniacs — rare enough in fact, that none of us have had the chance to see it. It sounds a little like an outlier curio in De Palma's back catalogue, but we'll leave this section ungraded pending getting a chance to actually judge for ourselves. [-]

Get to know Your Rabbit

"Get To Know Your Rabbit" (1972)
The last of De Palma's purely silly comedies, which embraced their shaggy absurdism and relied heavily on zippy wordplay and visual gags, as far as goodbyes go, they don't get much more inglorious than "Get to Know Your Rabbit." Tom Smothers (yes, one of the Smothers Brothers), plays an executive who leaves the corporate world behind to follow his dreams of becoming a tap dancing magician. Er. The title refers to one of the golden rules of magic, which is to get to know the rabbit that you'll be working with on stage. In fact, when Smothers says to Orson Welles —playing Mr. Delsandro, a master magician who runs an academy for wannabes — that he'll work 24 hours a day if he has to, Welles looks at him and growls, "That would be terribly unfair to your rabbit." The script, although intended for a major studio release, was heavily influenced by off-the-wall British comedy and focuses on zany gags like John Astin, playing Smothers' co-worker, locking Smothers and his parents in a wardrobe to give them more privacy, while he walks around the spacious room. The problem with "Get to Know Your Rabbit" is that its zippy exuberance can't replace an actual narrative worth investing in, and after the movie's first hour it just starts to grate. Supposedly Smothers was unhappy with the way the film was shot, and had Warner Bros effectively fire De Palma when the film was in post-production, leaving a picture that both the star and the director have publicly distanced themselves from. But even with De Palma out of the movie, it still carries with it some of the filmmaker's hallmarks, especially during the outstanding opening, which involves split screen, an overhead shot of a man walking through an apartment building (vertically and not laterally) and an attempted bombing (something that would return to the De Palma arsenal in "Phantom of the Paradise"). Ultimately, "Get to Know Your Rabbit" proved to be a dud, with barely any kind of theatrical release and no presence on home video until the Warner Bros. manufacture-on-demand technology resurrected it. Nowadays it's more notable for being the movie that convinced De Palma to move away from comedies and into the shadowy realm of the thriller, than anything that's actually in the movie. Although, it should be noted, Welles is a hoot. [C-]

Sisters

Sisters” (1973)
De Palma’s affection for all things Hitchcockian is on full display in this lovely little low-budget shocker, the first of his thrillers that more or less laid the groundwork for his career after its release. “Sisters” is like a game of cinematic Mad Libs, only with Hitchcock’s films. You can fill in the blanks with references to his work: the ludicrous pop-psychology and murder scenes are all “Psycho”; a multi-tiered, creepy nightmare sequence near the climax is reminiscent of “Vertigo”; elsewhere there’s a sequence straight out of “Rear Window”; and over it all Bernard Herrmann’s wonderfully batshit score. Yet De Palma also has fun subverting Hitch’s tropes, ultimately crafting a cautionary tale about modern women—diametrically represented by Margot Kidder’s sexy French model and Jennifer Salt’s smart, driven and bullheaded journalist— subjugated by men who refuse to take them seriously, and the harmful side effects that can result. When Kidder, here playing a Siamese twin who survived the separation surgery while her more disturbed sister died, meets a nice young man on a game show, things go from good (casual sex!) to very very bad (stabbing!) in a hurry, and it’s up to the reporter in the building across the street, played by Salt (in a role and storyline heavily indebted to Barbara Stanwyck’s “Witness to Murder”) to solve the case. The director’s tendency to fall into camp histrionics doesn’t always gel with his subject matter, but the crazy/silly/fun strange brew of “Sisters” and its use of giallo techniques and plotting and the surprisingly deft protofeminist leanings for what is in many ways an arty exploitation horror genre piece, proves a perfect match. It’s as stylish as anything in his filmography, often funny as hell, and on a few occasions brutally violent (seriously, that first murder is tough to watch, even by today’s gore standards), and the final shot is a wonderful little visual, cosmic joke. It’s flat-out one of De Palma’s best. [A]

Phantom of paradise

"Phantom of the Paradise" (1974)
It's kind of shocking to think of "Phantom of the Paradise" as coming before "Carrie," since it reeks of the wildly creative, endlessly self indulgent spectacle usually associated with a filmmaker cashing in all of their chips and goodwill following a sizable hit. "Phantom of the Paradise" is that kind of singularly outrageous passion project, but one that came before the director had any kind of quantifiable success. (Also of note: its gonzo mix of horror and musical elements predates "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" by a full year.) It's the kind of movie that makes you wonder, who the fuck does Brian De Palma think he is? A winky combination of "The Phantom of the Opera" and Faustian legend, well, let's just quote the Wolfman Jack radio ad from the period: "It's about a cat who sells his soul for rock'n'roll... It's a horror story, it's a love story, it's a comedy, all rolled into one phantasmagorical flick." Even though the movie, filled largely with obscure character actors like De Palma regulars William Finley and Gerrit Graham, was overlooked upon its initial release, both critically (Vincent Canby called it "an elaborate disaster" in his review for the New York Times) and commercially, it has since acquired an appreciable cult following and is largely cited as one of De Palma's finest. The cult of "Phantom of the Paradise" has a lot to do with the music by seventies icon Paul Williams, especially since the songs appropriate a wide range of styles and flavors (everything from doo wop to phony Beach Boys to all-out rock'n'roll). French electro duo Daft Punk talked openly about the influence "Phantom of the Paradise" has had on them, from their trademark masks to enlisting Williams for their own cross-genre masterpiece Random Access Memories and French musician Sebastien Tellier said that his Eurovision entry "Divine" was a direct reference to one of the fake bands in the movie. Of course, "Phantom of the Paradise" is also notable for its exuberant visuals, which are even more wildly comic book-y than normal (take the escape from prison/creation of the Phantom sequence), with De Palma's usual obsessive flourishes amped up to a frantic degree (it features some of his best use of split screen ever, during the sequence where the Phantom is planting a bomb on stage). Either you love "Phantom of the Paradise" or you hate it, there's very little middle ground. But for a director routinely criticized for how "cold" his movies are, this is an absolute delight, a surprisingly emotional, endlessly rewatchable journey through the dark heart of showbiz. [A]

This article is related to: Brian De Palma, Passion, Retrospective, Features, Feature, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface


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