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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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Obsession

"Obsession" (1976)
Considering how much bloody violence and explicit sex Brian De Palma has committed to cinema over the years, it's pretty strange that "Obsession," a PG-rated romantic mystery chiefly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," remains one of his most controversial. The movie itself is pretty simple, at least within the decidedly warped canon of De Palma movies: a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson) loses his wife and daughter in a kidnapping plot gone wrong and years later falls in love with a woman (Genevieve Bujold) who looks exactly like his late wife. Of course, his new obsession runs the risk of turning out like the last one, with Robertson losing the person he loves the most, especially since the dark forces that were responsible for the previous kidnapping are realigning (if you see John Lithgow in a Brian De Palma movie, just run the other way as fast as you can, especially if he has a slippery southern drawl). Famously, "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader's original script, entitled "Deja vu," was significantly longer than the finished film, with the obsession repeating itself a third time (the end of the movie was set in the not-too-distant future). When De Palma requested that the ending be truncated and rearranged, based on a suggestion by composer Bernard Hermann, Schrader refused, and De Palma did the last script polish; Schrader never forgave him. But surely this extra act could have added little to the film besides yet another layer of mind boggling complexity (you can read the script in the little booklet that comes with the region-free European Blu-ray of the movie). The other area of contention is the movie's (SPOILER) incestuous subplot, with the eventual reveal being that the woman Robertson falls in love in the second timeline is actually his daughter (she didn't really die in the original kidnapping plot). In an effort to lessen the overt incest subplot and gain a distributor for the independent production, De Palma and his editor Paul Hirsch added effects and an establishing shot of Robertson sleeping to suggest much of their relationship, including when they have sex, was actually a dream - a dreamy fabrication of his inner desires. Subsequently, the dream sequence reading of the movie has largely been put aside, with most taking the literal meaning of the movie: that Robertson fucked his daughter. Pretty bleak stuff for a PG-rated movie (something that makes it all even more perverse). While "Obsession" is far from perfect — its pacing often drags, the cast is somewhat second rate (Robertson can't pull off the psychodrama or the sexuality) and Vilmos Zsigmond's diffused cinematography is sometimes so soft that the image becomes a blurry haze (though there are some truly wonderful shots, of course, including a great moment that's meant to represent the passage of 15 years). But there are just as many delights, like Hermann's sweeping score and Lithgow's bonkers performance. Admittedly, if you watch the movie thinking that the incest subplot is not a dream, then it's a much better, more gleefully lurid experience. [B]

Carrie

Carrie” (1976)
Often imitated, never duplicated (woe to this fall's high profile remake), Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, “Carrie” not only introduced the work of Stephen King to the silver screen for the first time, but also helped to usher the horror genre out of the B-movie ghetto and into mainstream success and prestige (both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were Academy-award nominated for their performances). De Palma brings his sheer cinematic audacity to the well-trodden world of high school bullies and and mean girls, both energizing and abstracting the genre’s aesthetic, infusing the proceedings with a shot of absurdism and beauty, and showcasing a completely unique style of cinematic storytelling. However, here, all of the style serves the story, which is why sequences like the extended slow motion naked locker room introduction/tampon attack, the spiraling camera during a dance between Carrie and Tommy (William Katt), and the use of split screen to demonstrate Carrie’s telekinetic powers during her violent rampage feel not just apropos, but the only way to capture these moments. But while he applies artful (and ballsy) cinematic techniques to what is essentially high school horror exploitation material, De Palma isn’t afraid to muck around with a little bit of camp (a quality all too easily tossed aside in overly serious modern horror). Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s Southern-fried religious fanatic mother, as well as Nancy Allen as the evil Chris (with John Travolta as her dumb-as-rocks boyfriend) are the epitome of high camp. This willingness to allow the film to be ridiculous or funny at times is what makes it so compulsively re-watchable (the mark of a true classic), and inspires one to long for De Palma to return to this milieu. No matter how many sequels or remakes or Broadway adaptations, no iteration of this tale will come close to the original without De Palma behind the wheel. [A]

the Fury

"The Fury" (1978)
Usually, you can tell whether or not someone is a De Palma die hard by where they stand on "The Fury": to the faithful it's a kicky, super-charged thriller, one in which the heightened style De Palma developed with "Carrie" spins gloriously out of control, a movie so artfully entertaining that it supposedly inspired Godard to return to more mainstream enterprises. For those on the other side of the fence it's an unnecessarily violent, muddled retread of the infinitely superior "Carrie," one in which the constant flow of sparky shocks trumps little things like narrative coherence or tonal consistency. What makes "The Fury" such a singular moment in the director's filmography is that both lines of thought are essentially correct: it is kind of a shit show, with the movie's highly emotional thematic core, which attempts to dramatize what it's like to be a young person (with psychic powers, no less) victimized by powerful adults, repeatedly getting undercut by De Palma's show-offy camerawork and abrupt tonal shifts, like the hilarious sight of Kirk Douglas, as an AWOL secret agent, running around Chicago in his underwear. On the other side of things, "The Fury" is an absurdist delight, one in which the rigid conventions of the seventies paranoid thriller are taken to such extremes that the movie takes on its own kind of profound, abstract beauty; earthly logic doesn't matter because you're so wholly transported. The plot of "The Fury" concerns teenagers who possess a psychic ability that makes them very attractive to a covert government shingle that hopes to weaponize them (led by a gloriously villainous John Cassavetes, who gets his comeuppance in the movie's unforgettable final moment). Like the "X-Men" movies, "The Fury" mines the transition from childhood to adulthood as a metaphorically rich period of time, where the emotional trauma and feelings of alienation and heartache translate into superpowers and exploding heads. For such an underseen movie, it has some of the director's most virtuosic set pieces, including a wordless foot chase sequence (scored by John Williams' amazing music), a foggy car chase that seems to have been filmed almost entirely on an elaborate set, and an absolutely astounding sequence set at a now-defunct indoor amusement park where one of the psychically gifted teens lets out his fury. The film has its share of problems (the parallel narrative paths never reconcile in a meaningful way) but it's a movie that seems to be saying something about America's relationship with the Middle East while also being a coming-of-age tale that makes time for jokes about Kirk Douglas' underwear and exploding heads. [A-]

Home Movies

"Home Movies" (1980)
During Brian De Palma's sexy, suspenseful streak of either out-and-out masterpieces or interesting, adventurous entertainments, he stopped to make "Home Movies," a clunky, low-budget, disarmingly autobiographical comedy about a young man (Keith Gordon) who, distraught over his parents' rocky marriage, starts obsessively filming his home life. (Some of its handmade charm came from the fact that De Palma made the movie with his students from a class he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College). Voyeurism has been a constant theme in De Palma's work, stemming from an early childhood incident where he tried to capture photographic evidence of his father's philandering ways. This is De Palma dealing with that situation directly, although diffused through the trappings of a gonzo indie comedy, wherein the Gordon character is visited regularly by Kirk Douglas (who had just starred in De Palma's infinitely funnier big-budget sci-fi thingy "The Fury") playing a kind of magical film professor who guides Gordon in the best ways to photograph his father. Sometimes this is kind of funny, but more often than not it's WTF-worthy weirdness. De Palma regulars Nancy Allen (who was still married to the director at the time) and Gerrit Graham (from "Phantom of the Paradise") make memorable appearances but get lost in the muddy, boxy photography (so weird for a director who usually so elegantly uses the widescreen image) and snared in the script's confused tonal mishmash. De Palma movies are often notable for being wholly understandable just by the images alone; even without music or dialogue you can grasp what's happening. With "Home Movies," he was boldly reverting back to the more experimental material of his early films but in a way that fails to connect in any meaningful way. He was certainly going for something with "Home Movies," but what that something is remains wholly obscured. Not even the imagery can muster much enthusiasm, even from the De Palma faithful. [C-]

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


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