Coinciding with the release of a new documentary about the director from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, the SIFF Film Center is playing a mini-retrospective of Brian De Palma’s films this weekend, June 24-26. Certified Classics Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Obsession, Blow Out, Body Double, Scarface and Carlito’s Way present a neat cross-section of some of his Best Work, and they’re all playing digitally at a discounted ticket price (and free for members).
In my youth I righteously derided The Untouchables and its director, Brian De Palma, for what I in my radicalized 20s felt was an immoral misappropriation of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein’s film was a statement of protest, an anguished depiction of the mechanical brutality of authoritarian oppression. De Palma’s film, on the other hand, is a celebration of the agents of authority who happily march outside the law in pursuit of their targets (“the Chicago Way”), in service of a Prohibition policy they don’t even believe in. The disconnect between the original meaning and the homage was sickening to me, and I’d concluded that De Palma was nothing more than a technically-gifted hack. This impression was confirmed by Snake Eyes and The Black Dahlia, movies I found incoherent, sloppy, annoying, disgusting and even outright offensive. Both were among my least favorite movies of their respective years. Sure, I’d seen and liked Carrie (true story: Carrie was the first movie that ever made me jump out of my seat in fright), but reading it as a paranoid male fantasy about the dangers of young girls growing up into women (something it shares with another great 70s horror film from a controversial auteur, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist), made it a deeply unlikeable film for me. Even Blow Out I received as merely a lesser, more sensationalistic and thus less intelligent, knock-off of both Blow-Up and The Conversation. Scarface was simply absurd, and Carlito’s Way I remembered mostly for Sean Penn’s hair.
But a few years ago I tried to give De Palma another shot, after reading oh so many glowing references to him by critics I admire and respect. I started with Phantom of the Paradise and for the first time his sensibility clicked with me. I don’t know if I had changed, become more receptive to a certain kind of filmmaking, or if there was a qualitative difference between this early work and his later films, but the gorgeously insane rock operatics of the film, the catholic way it drew inspiration from art high and low to meld into one gloriously demented ode to creation and destruction was earth-shattering. I quickly followed up with his trilogy of outright Hitchcock homages, Obsession (Vertigo), Dressed to Kill (Psycho), and Body Double (Rear Window and also Vertigo), each of which had a baffling, mad power to them, unlike anything I’d seen in the American cinema. These films, unlike most Hollywood products, become more dizzying the more you try to unpack them, the dense web of signifiers De Palma cobbles together fulfilling on film Wallace Stevens’s dictum that “The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully.”
The new documentary provides little insight into the meanings of De Palma’s work, in fact showing an almost pathological avoidance of the kind of psychological analysis that passes for much auteur criticism. Taking the form of a long conversation, De Palma affably walks us through his entire filmography, from his mid-60s indie roots (where he gave Robert DeNiro his first real role) through his post-Hollywood 21st century work. It bears a strong resemblance to François Truffaut’s book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, except with all the Truffaut bits cut out: we never see or hear De Palma’s interlocutors, we have no sense of the conversational flow, if there are questions he didn’t want to answer, or made him uncomfortable, or instances in which he disagreed with the young directors he’s conversing with (all of which Truffaut managed: some of the best bits in the book are when Truffaut defends films Hitchcock didn’t care for, we get to see the difference between the way a young critic/director views a film and the way its maker sees it). Instead, the conversation sticks mostly to production details, many of which are fascinating (the section on Cliff Robertson in Obsession is surely a classic) and have the air of being well-rehearsed, anecdotes of a life-time that De Palma has been polishing at dinner parties for decades. The talking head is mixed with illustrative film clips and archival material, all of it well-judged and to the point. It’s an immensely entertaining documentary, one that makes you wish the man had directed even more films than he did.
Only occasionally does De Palma address any of the criticisms of his films. It’s unavoidable on Bonfire of the Vanities, of course, a famous boondoggle of a production, though a film that is not without interest. But when the subject of misogyny comes up, specifically during the discussion of Body Double and its horrifying murder by super-sized phallic drill bit, De Palma acknowledges and understands the criticism, but deflects it with a simple “I had to do what was best for the story”. See, the drill bit had to be so long because it had to drill a hole through the floor so that the hero could see it in the ceiling above him. That may be true, but all concerned leave hanging the question of why the hero had to see that? There may be good reasons: structurally it rhymes with his role as both a peeping tom to the murder (the drill carving a peep hole) and a claustrophobe (the murder occurring as an oppressive weight above him), and the drill bit echoes the spirals of Vertigo. But why is De Palma drawn to such stories? What is it about violence, especially violence against women, that kept inspiring him to make movies?
I’ve concluded that, as with the class politics of The Untouchables, it’s simply a category mistake to think about De Palma’s work in these terms. He is a director first and foremost of sensation, of suspense (this is his great legacy from Hitchcock, though he is not, as he claims, its only inheritor). A movie like Scarface is, from a certain point of view, idiotic. But it’s also a film packed to bursting with privileged moments, scenes of pastel transcendence unlike any created in the history of Hollywood. (Though I do love to imagine John Woo and Tsui Hark giggling with glee as they pull a “This is a knife” on Scarface‘s climactic shoot-out four years later with A Better Tomorrow II. Scarface doesn’t even come close to the top, let alone get over it). There may be a deeper meaning to De Palma’s films, certainly many have argued the case, either psychological or satirical or, God forbid, as camp. I don’t know, and De Palma the film won’t get anyone any closer to finding it. He’s the most elegantly decadent genius director America has produced in the last 50 years and for me, that’s enough.