Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 18, 2014
I had a healthy conversation the other day on Twitter (yes, that is possible, it just takes a lot of back and forth) about Brian De Palma. I made an offhanded joke implying, rather unfairly, that De Palma had done nothing of value beyond Blow Out. He has, of course, and through the conversation, many people, including friend and frequent Morlock commenter, Andrew, chimed in to name some (Andrew named The Untouchables, which I like a lot). But what I was really saying was this: At one point, De Palma held a lot of promise for me. I thought after Blow Out that the sky was the limit and within a few years, who knows, maybe a Best Director Oscar was in the cards. It wasn’t. Despite liking a few movies here and there, nothing De Palma did after Blow Out, not even Carlito’s Way, which I also like very much, seemed balanced on the edge of greatness anymore. It wasn’t the first time that happened with a director for me, and it won’t be the last.
Before and after Blow Out, De Palma did several movies I like. He did Obsession, The Fury, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Phantom of the Paradise, Greetings, Carlito’s Way and The Untouchables. Most of those, you’ll notice, came from before Blow Out while a couple came after. It was afterwards that the disappointment became palpable. Scarface is a favorite of many but I don’t like it at all. Scratch that, I can’t stand it. Body Double, same feeling. Wise Guys and The Bonfire of the Vanities are barely competent exercises in running film through a camera while people do uninteresting things in front of it. And later works that some folks have a fondness for, like Mission to Mars, I watched with the feeling that either I was crazy or my friends were. I mean, by the time I got to the end of that movie, I was honestly wondering, and still kind of am, was it intentionally bad, like a modern take on Ed Wood.
These are strong opinions, I know, and you may have noticed something else: I keep seeing Brian De Palma movies! There’s a reason for that and now, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll attempt to explain it. Here goes.
I think De Palma is a real talent and don’t agree with those who feel he’s a style plagiarist incapable of creating his own signature. Yes, he clearly imitates to the point of preciousness sometimes (the Odessa steps/Railway station scene in The Untouchables is less a nod to Eisenstein than a “look, here’s the Potemkin sequence with different actors” setup) but he’s more of a film sampler, if that makes any sense. In music, artists often sample from others, taking a refrain from one song but writing something completely different around it. That’s what I see De Palma doing and it’s never bothered me, really.
He borrows techniques and style choices from Hitchcock in Blow Out, the movie I believe to be one of the best thrillers of the eighties, but he puts them in the service of something original and vigorous and filled with crazy energy. He was and is a master of the split diopter, a half lens (think semi-circle) that attaches to the camera allowing the camera lens to focus on something in the background as well as the foreground. No, it’s not deep focus photography, that’s all taking place using one lens, it’s different (slightly) and has a more immediate feel to it because it’s not just depth of field, it’s two different subjects, one extremely close, one further away, sharing the screen (Click here to see the diopter shots from Blow Out, including the owl shot at the top of the post, my favorite in the movie).
So I think De Palma has a lot going for him and really like his early work. That’s why, when I make a joke about him on twitter, it’s a clumsy way of saying I once had a lot of hope for him to be one of the all time great filmmakers and, well, it just didn’t work out. At the same time, I so admire some of his earlier work, especially Blow Out, that I keep returning again and again, hoping this next one will be the one to bring me back. Some I need to give another chance. I saw Casualties of War back in 1989 and despite Pauline Kael telling me it was best thing De Palma had ever done, I was underwhelmed. Maybe another look all these years later will change that. Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, disappointments one and all. He made two in the last seven years, neither I’ve even seen: Redacted and Passion. I got to the point where I gave up. The love affair ended and I stopped trying. Until that twitter conversation, that is, in which more than one person vouched for Passion as a great De Palma film. I want to see it now and will very soon. I’m reluctant. I’m not sure I want to be disappointed again by De Palma. It’s one thing to be disappointed by some hack you couldn’t care less for, it’s something else entirely to watch yet another movie by a director you once thought was going to go straight to the top and feel that once again, you got duped.
Like I said on twitter, De Palma’s operatic and I like that. I like a director not afraid to try something new each time out. I like a director who’s willing to play up emotions and play the visuals to the back row, in a manner of speaking. I like a director who isn’t afraid to freely sample and create something new around something established. I like the director just fine. Now, I want to like the movies again.
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