Brian De Palma
Along with Altman, De Palma is probably my favorite living American filmmaker. I’ve been meaning to write something about him for a while but oddly enough I find the intense aesthetic pleasure I get from his movies to be a bit…..daunting. I'm not sure I could ever do justice to those aesthetic rewards. So let me just start small, by pointing to a couple of things I value about his movies; I’ve revisited about ten of them in the last couple of weeks, so this is as good a time as any, while they’re still fresh in my mind.
Robin Wood once proposed that during some of the richest periods of art—the Renaissance, the Elizabethan theatre, the Vienna of Mozart—artists strove not to self-consciously and strenuously break with tradition but instead to collaborate with existing forms or conventions or genres, using them as pre-existing elements with which to build original works that were nevertheless infused with the artist’s personality. There’s a certain humility, a certain muting of egocentricity, in this act of collaboration. Speaking of Mulholland Drive, De Palma marveled at Lynch’s audacity in working completely outside audience expectation and convention. But De Palma himself would rather make movies a little more readily—if deceptively—accommodating of the audience, setting up expectations through familiar genre markers, only to continually complicate and subvert those expectations.
De Palma is always reminding us, coolly, insistently: “This is something else—this is....cinema.” So much that passes for cinema could conceivably be translated roughly, paraphrased reasonably, without catastrophic loss, into non-cinematic mediums. Not so with De Palma—almost every one of his scenes signals, self-consciously, the impossibility of this transposition. Some of his greatest scenes—the Sissy Spacek/William Katt dance at the prom in Carrie and the Craig Wasson/Deborah Shelton embrace outside the tunnel in Body Double, both shot with 360-degree orbiting camera swooning in unison with the players; the museum scene in Dressed To Kill; the motel sequence with three interacting levels of action at the climax of Raising Cain; the pool-room sequence in Carlito’s Way, etc.—are rapturous because they are distilled and intensified cinema, often emptied of words. They are like ecstatic arias that don't necessarily echo emotions inside the narrative but instead celebrate the sui generis powers of the medium.
Simultaneous with maximizing the cinematic potential of a narrative, De Palma wants to make us aware of the artifice involved in doing so. Thus, his use of stylization in the form of split screens, slow motion, unusual and striking camera angles clearly not mimicking the view of an ordinary observer, the presence of frames within frames, etc. The “manipulating hand” is never invisible, it wants to be seen—which is a morally responsible choice. Two quick and lesser-known examples of carefully distancing artifice: having Genevieve Bujold and Sissy Spacek play little-girl versions of themselves in Obsession and Carrie (the latter didn’t make the final cut of the film); or the last scene in the cemetery with Amy Irving in Carrie in which cars travel backward on the highway.
Since De Palma’s films are so self-consciously “composed,” the screen becomes an important element of the viewing experience. Bazin famously said—I’m paraphrasing here—that traditionally the screen has been thought of as a rectangle similar to the picture frame of a painting or the proscenium of a theater stage, both of which selectively include elements from the world outside. Instead, he remarked, Renoir saw the screen as an analogue of the camera viewfinder that excluded the world as much as it included it; the camera both reveals the world and conceals it. De Palma vividly illustrates this but with a twist: he makes the revealing and concealing blatantly apparent, calling attention to itself. In his split screens, for instance, he shows (“includes”) multiple views of an event, and his traveling long takes make for uninterrupted building of information; but at the same time, with his profuse use of POV shots, voyeuristic looking and “mystery and suspense” narratives, he shows the limitedness (“exclusion”) of what we (and the characters) are seeing. All the while, he is making visible the act of including and excluding. Once again, there’s a moral dimension to this choice.
Carlito’s Way is in some ways De Palma’s most heartfelt film. Just like Bresson gave away endings in the title of a film (A Man Escaped) or in the credit sequence (Pickpocket), Carlito’s Way’s first shot is the barrel of gun—John Leguizamo plugs Al Pacino at Grand Central Station, in slow motion. We circle back to Grand Central, via flashback, at the end. I always tell myself each time I watch the film that I will play clinical observer in this (virtuosic) climactic chase sequence, paying attention to camera angles, length of takes and cuts, but I’m always wrenched from my observational resolve, vacuum-sucked into its thrills.
Al Pacino performs the feat of playing an ex-druglord and killer with such melancholy and soul that he makes him almost saintly. His struggle to go straight, rise above his circumstance, reach his dream of selling Ford Pintos in the Bahamas—these could be corny beyond belief but instead become quite touching. Pacino’s blustery courtroom rehabilitation speech sounds ridiculous at first—Paul Mazursky the judge actually rolls his eyes—but how moving to find that every word of it is actually true!
De Palma likes to partition his images—sometimes literally, as we know, through split screens, and other times indirectly—carving them into distinct zones that unite, separate or encase characters. In the above image (which could easily be a split screen but is not), Pacino and Sean Penn are at a disco, talking to each other, mostly ignoring their dates. The left side of the frame plays up the allure of the women, with “romantic” lighting and a flash of décolletage; Pacino and Penn are to the far right, distant, unavailable, merely throwing their dates a quick bemused glance before resuming their conversation (Pacino tells Penn at one point: “If you was a broad, I’d marry you.”) This early image in the film sets up an alliance; future images will go to work on dismantling the alliance.
Serendipitous De Palma posts sprouting up in the blogosphere: Dennis Cozzalio on Femme Fatale in Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots project at Scanners; and Zach Campbell on The Fury. From a few years ago: a set of impressionistic appreciations of Carlito's Way at Senses Of Cinema.