Friday, 29 April 2016
DE PALMA - HOT DOCS 2016 Guest Review By Meraj Dhir - De Palma Fetishes Revered
De Palma (2016)
Dir. Noah Baumbauch, Jake Paltrow
Starring: Brian De Palma
By Meraj Dhir
De Palma is indispensable - a jewel for filmmakers and film lovers alike. Then again, Brian De Palma is a jewel unto himself and is more than deserving of this first-rate feature documentary spanning over 40 years of a vital directing career. Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones) and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) have teamed up to create a film that's as exciting, engrossing and suspenseful as one of the eponymous director’s own grand thrillers.
A simple, frontal camera set-up allows auteur Brian De Palma, now 75, to guide us through his films and his career. The audience is granted a privileged position at the feet of the master for just under two glorious hours of film connoisseurship - replete with delightful anecdotes, breathtakingly searing film excerpts and little-before-seen footage of the filmmakers’ earliest works, several of which feature a babyfaced Robert De Niro, whose early association with De Palma (along with several other notable celebrities) allowed the actor to hone his craft.
As a member of the so-called New Hollywood of the 1960s, Brian De Palma is commonly associated with filmmakers Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and others whose careers were launched within one of the most intensively cinephillic periods in American film history. This was a period in American film that saw the efflorescence of film schools and film societies, repertory cinemas and brilliantly original film criticism by the likes of Pauline Kael, Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris. Moreover, with the weakening of the studio system, American filmmakers were influenced as much by the great masters of the art such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, as they were by the new influx of European art cinema: the critically celebrated films of Truffaut, Antonioni and Godard.
Paltrow and Baumbach’s film reveals, however, a version of De Palma that indicates a more original and ambivalent place for the director within this divide. The portrait of De Palma that emerges is one of a director who is as much an anti-establishment, countercultural auteur as a studio company-man whose mastery of technical craft and cinematic know-how allowed him to make films that were both intensely personal and box office triumphs.
De Palma eschews most personal biography and scandal in favor of focusing on the director’s reflections about the films themselves. We do learn, however, that the young De Palma was a science prodigy and the son of an accomplished but philandering Orthopedic Surgeon who was mostly distant from his children.
The director had an intensely close attachment to his mother. As a boy he frequently followed his adulterous father, once even bursting into his medical practice, confronting him and his female lover with a knife on behalf of his mother. De Palma’s emphasis on the voyeuristic and Oedipal aspects of this anecdote plays out in his telling like a scene from one of his own genre thrillers.
The young De Palma studied physics at Columbia University, assuming he was destined to be a scientist, but quickly fell into the thrall of the robust cinema culture of New York City in the 1960s. Looking to enter filmmaking he began by making shorts for Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 avant-garde film society. These beginnings in experimental filmmaking rather than fiction film were central to the director’s eventual career.
First, De Palma made the films entirely by himself and his background as a scientist emboldened him to immerse himself in the technical know-how of all aspects of filmmaking from operating a camera, lighting actors, editing and synching sound all by himself. Second, the type of films Cinema 16 prized were those that, through their formal and stylistic experimentation, were somehow subversive or critical of mainstream film practice.
De Palma next found himself in the graduate theater department at Sarah Lawrence College where, guided by mentors such as stage director Wilford Leach. Here he was heavily influenced by the experimental theater movements of the period.
In an especially telling anecdote, De Palma describes a formative experience watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a kind of neo-Brechtian exercise in the mechanics of filmmaking. In other words, De Palma found in Vertigo a film that brought attention to the act of voyeuristic watching experienced by the viewer in cinema, even as the film narrated an immersive and psychologically complex fiction.
De Palma explains he found the film to perform a kind of distanciation effect that laid bare its own formal operations. Hitchcock’s film is not really Brechtian, but that De Palma chose to interpret or rather “misinterpret” the master’s work in this way is especially illuminating. It indicates the type of “misprision,” described in poetry by Harold Bloom whereby artists, due to the “anxiety of influence,” and a sense of belatedness informed by the weight of tradition, misread their predecessors so as to clear an imaginative space for themselves.
As David Bordwell describes in his book about the New Hollywood, "The Way Hollywood Tells It", this sense of belatedness for directors starting their careers after the decline of the studio system is central to understanding the innovative aesthetic spaces American filmmakers of the 1960s carved out for themselves. Belatedness or an “anxiety of influence” was compelled by the great weight of tradition where it seemed every generic and aesthetic avenue had been exhausted by canonic exemplars and titanic predecessors: how to make a western after Ford? a gangster film after Hawkes? a drama after Welles or Wyler? a thriller after Hitchcock? And so strategies of misreading, misprision, debasement and others were used by new filmmakers to move beyond tradition while still paying homage to artistic forbearers. This is just as true of Scorsese and Coppola who revivified the gangster film, as it is for Lucas and Spielberg whose elevated their favorite Saturday morning adventure serials to feature film prestige.
Much in De Palma’s career can be explained by his obsession with Hitchcock. Baumbach and Paltrow’s film features the filmmaker talking at great length about Hitchcock’s films. Late in the film he proudly asserts that he is one of the few, if only filmmakers, to continue the Hitchockian mode of filmmaking. And he laments that a new generation of filmmakers seem blind to the rich array of devices found in the great American classical tradition of filmmaking.
De Palma does not so much continue in the Hitchockian mode as he pushes certain Hitchcockian motifs and stylistics, intensifying and amplifying them to a more self-reflexive degree. He essentially admits to using the best as a springboard into his own voice - to use the Hitchcock form of suspense thrillers to inform his own.
Self-consciously assertive and strident visual filmmaking is characteristic of De Palma’s best work. The plush pictorialism and hyperbolic camerawork of films such as Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Body Double, Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale, just to name a few, push visceral affect to an extreme, a subversiveness only realized by filmmakers such as Cronenberg or John Carpenter.
De Palma’s films delight in gender confusion, sexuality, and the dynamics of male-female perversion. His deeply masterful (and acutely disturbing) Dressed to Kill (1980) opens with a sexually frustrated housewife played by Angie Dickinson who succumbs to a pick-up at the Museum of Modern Art, followed by a dive into some afternoon delight. Her "punishment" includes the discovery of her partner's V.D., followed by a vicious encounter with a transgender serial murderer. Michael Caine is on hand as a psychiatrist who harbours an especially sordid secret.
The role of modernist art and “camp” should not be overlooked in De Palma’s aesthetics. After all, the director was primarily trained in avant-garde theater, the only male in Sarah Lawrence’s graduate theater program. Several of his mentors were gay men and he began making films during one of the most vibrant and exciting periods in modern art when abstract expressionism splintered into several forking paths from minimalism, Pop Art, Op art to post-painterly abstraction. Amongst one of a handful of documentaries De Palma directed, is a film about MoMA’s landmark Op Art exhibition with the self-same title The Responsive Eye. And the visual delirium of the Op Art movement informs the more bawdy, grand guignol aspects of the director’s work.
De Palma’s films fall into two broad categories: the experimental shorts and student features and on the other hand, the larger budget genre films. An example of the former are films like the whimsical Vietnam satire Greetings, or the bewilderingly Brechtian “Hi Mom!” that begins as a sort of quaint coming of age story with Robert De Niro in the lead, then quickly devolves into a bizarre race parody with a group of WASPy white patrons who attend a drama put on by a radical black theater group. Known as the film’s “Be Black, Baby,” sequence it seems the actors literally hi-jack the film itself submitting the theater audience to various race inversions and indignities. In a stalled elevator the actors terrorize and seemingly rape a female white spectator. The film concludes with the trounced audience thanking the black theater troupe for the insightful experience! These films and others such as Dionysus in 69’ are deeply informed by Leftist-revolutionary ideas, experimental theater, and especially the new influx of films by Jean-Luc Godard. In addition to Vertigo, De Palma surprisingly names Godard’s Weekend as an especially influential film.
While De Palma’s forte for inventively torqueing the conventions of psychological horror was evident in the independently produced Sisters, a film about separated Siamese twins–where the director first worked with the great Bernard Hermann – it was with his adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller, Carrie, that the director further developed some of his trademark themes and stylistics. The film begins with lingering shots on naked body of actress Sissey Spacek as she showers in a high-school girl’s changeroom. As the camera languishes on her nubile body we soon notice a trickle of blood that begins to flow between her legs and she is horrified to discover her period. The other girls then barrage her with tampons as Carrie cowers from the vicious, sadistic hazing. The film enlists the split-screen diopter effect on several occasions, a technique whereby both foreground and background areas of the shot appear in crisp focus. The device creates a kind of inter-shot montage effect and is almost self-reflexive in its artifice as two areas of our attention are brought into relationship, at times jockeying for our attention across the frame. We see here the influence of Welles and Wyler in the looming foreground and deep focus, deep staging mise-en-scène.
In the terrifying climax of the film, De Palma makes copious use of the split-screen effect he had first employed in Dionysus ’69 to show both the titular character’s facial expression and the onslaught of her vengeance, the reaction shots of the assembled prom guests. But a key discovery here for De Palma was that the split-screen technique was “too intellectual” to choreograph more intricate action set pieces. With Carrie, De Palma had his first blockbuster and the film presaged several other commercial successes to follow. The film also demonstrated De Palma’s great facility in directing actors, two of whom, Sissey Spacek and Piper Laurie, garnered Academy Award nominations for their performances in the film.
The themes of voyeurism, scopophilia, twinning, seductive but malevolent doppelgangers, and gender inversions are recurrent in the director’s oeuvre. So too, we learn how nimbly the director was able to move between big-budget studio pictures throughout his career. After making The Fury, a film based on John Farris’ bestseller, De Palma found time to independently produce the experimental Home Movies that was work-shopped with the graduate theater department at Sarah Lawrence but also starred Kirk Douglas and other notable actors.
Influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, De Palma wrote and directed Blow-Out starring John Travolta as a sound technician who mistakenly may have recorded a murder. While a critical and cult success, the film was a box-office failure. But once again in the director’s career the tides would turn and with Scarface De Palma consolidated his reputation in both the film and more broadly cultural landscape. The film was not only a commercial success but would become a much referenced and imitated exemplar of gangster filmmaking, American greed and the lust for power. Moreover, Scarface became an emblem for the hip-hop movement and its images and catchphrases were henceforth iconic within the American imaginary.
But I would be doing a great disservice to Paltrow and Baumbach’s film if I characterized it as just another career summary. Perhaps the greatest value of De Palma are the close analyses of film form and style narrated by the director himself.
One theme that quickly emerges is De Palma’s emphasis on cinematic worldbuilding and how a film’s form and design should be robustly informed by the psychological and subtextual themes of the story. Moreover, De Palma is emphatic about the importance of rhythm and tone. Citing the protracted zooms of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, De Palma recalls the revelation he experienced when he realized that Kubrick’s device primed the audience to the rhythms of a different historical period, a different sense of duration and cinematic temporality.
On several occasions De Palma relates the importance of moments of “waiting” or temps mort, those periods of “connective tissue,” are as important to the director as the film’s key plot events. These moments are also central for narration and generating suspense as they provide opportunities to distract the audience. Distraction, De Palma emphasizes is as important to generating suspense as the director’s primary task of drawing attention to salient narrative material.
De Palma festishizes the stylistics of film: camera movement, lighting, staging actors, editing and music. A few times he mentions his ideal of aspiring to a kind of “pure cinema”. The director’s understanding of the kinetic and kinesthetic power of film, along with his technical facility is one reason the director was so able to adapt to the demands of big budget blockbuster filmmaking. Just as his The Untouchables is one of the finest cop films of the eighties, De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is arguably still the best installment of that franchise, combining bravado and immaculately precise action set pieces and engrossing dramatic suspense. The problem with today’s action films, De Palma relates, is in their overdependence on hand-held camera work and traditional “coverage” methods of shooting. Instead, the director prefers crafting intricate sequences that have an underlying relationship with a film’s themes and the emotional tone of the scene. Numerous passages of Paltrow and Baumbach’s film have De Palma analyzing sequences of films to explicate his working methods and those of others.
For example, De Palma demonstrates for us how the values of cinematic texture, the rhythms of camera movements and inter and intra shot dynamics –what the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein called “tonal” and “overtonal” montage—are all carefully modulated in his films. The lingering overhead shot, the virtuosically choregraphed long-take and depth staging are all hallmarks of the director’s style. We get a heightened awareness of how important precision and technical craft are for the director and how film sources and story materials are “reflected,” and “refracted” by the director’s gifted analytical vision. Like Hitchcock, De Palma’s films are artful “machines” that operate on the viewer as much as they create open-ended modernist and ambiguous cinematic texts.
De Palma covers much else in its synoptic look at the filmmaker’s career. We gain a first hand account of his principled objections to America’s involvement in Vietnam and the Middle East. Both Casualties of War and its re-imagining Redacted are emphatic anti-war films. We also receive much insight into the importance of musical scoring for De Palma and his close relationships with Bernard Herman and then Pino Donaggio. The scores of De Palma’s films are all artworks in themselves. De Palma also features a plethora of anecdotes about filmmaking in the dizzyingly creative New Hollywood period and both charming and shocking personal reminisces from the director.
For this critic, the director’s two best works are Body Double, a deliriously sexy and bizarre thriller, and Carlito’s Way, a film the director tells us he watched again recently and thought “I don’t know how I could make a better film than this.” It’s a film where De Palma’s technical precision, his lurid stylistics, and personal thematics all perfectly coalesce.
With De Palma, Paltrow and Baumbach, both accomplished filmmakers in their own right, have given a true gift to cinema and film lovers. Their directorial finesse is evident in the ways they collage scenes and sequences from De Palma’s films to correspond to his analyses. The rhythm and pacing of the film perfectly captures De Palma’s forthright personality and their close friendship with the director, built up over years, allows them to elicit the most honest commentary possible from this now elder statesmen and master of cinema.
Meraj Dhir's FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
De Palma screens at Hot Docs 2016.