When people draw up their lofty pantheons of the eternally great directors, Brian De Palma (born 1940, turned 80 in 2020) frequently disappears early in the cull. Of course, he has his fervent fans all over the world – more visibly and vocally now in the Internet age, with numerous, extravagant, idolatory websites. And there has always been a steady trickle of intensely detailed analyses from a more microscopic perspective. (1) But, when push comes to shove, few are likely to rate De Palma alongside names like Carl Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles or Jean Renoir.
What is this resistance to valuing De Palma? Partly, it is a matter of the kind of films he makes: not exactly humanist – and humanism remains, despite all protestations to the contrary, the supreme criterion for the majority of moviegoers, professional or otherwise: films centred on three-dimensional, richly personalised characters, or themes in the traditional literary or theatrical sense (love, death, struggle, hope …).
And, despite his own claim that he moved a little more toward “character-driven” stories at the time of Casualties of War (1989) and Carlito’s Way (1993), De Palma, it seems, is forever fated to be included in the legion of filmmakers deemed variously cold, mechanical, calculating, even “cruel and indifferent” (as David Thomson called him) – turning people into puppets or ciphers for his formalistic games. And when those games involve the spectacular depiction of sex and/or violence, as is frequently the case, we are faced with a decidedly impure cinema on the cultural level.
The filmmaker himself sees the matter entirely differently – and he has expressed himself on this point many times, in numerous interviews and in the feature documentary De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015). For him, by contrast, what he creates is pure cinema – exploiting to the hilt what it is that cinema, and cinema alone, can do, engineer and create: movement, spectacle, action, intrigue, suspense, catastrophe … a constant, finely balanced dance between the opposing energies of chaos and control. (2)
However, there is one clear and present danger in attending too closely to De Palma’s interviews and other public statements. He is one of the many filmmakers who do not really enjoy speaking or theorising about their own work. De Palma has reluctantly crafted a persona for the public – a well-rehearsed story to tell about himself and his life that he unfailingly repeats, without variation, from one platform to the next. Finally (and this is again true of many directors, as well as artists in general), this story is more a mask than a confession. As any psychoanalyst could tell you, the tale that is confidently repeated verbatim the moment that a patient hits the couch is a defence mechanism rather than a genuine self-exploration. In De Palma’s personal case, the public biography both highlights and obscures something essential about his trajectory as a cinematic creator.
De Palma is a product of the 1960s – of its counter-cultural currents, and its political upheavals. The two, interconnected films that first brought him a measure of public attention – Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), both starring a young Robert De Niro in his pre-Martin Scorsese phase – embodied the director’s stated dream: “If I could be the American Godard, that would be great”. (3) They are low-budget, anarchic, scattershot, semi-improvised films that “act out”, in comical-grotesque terms, the various obsessions, anxieties and liberations of those years as De Palma experienced and internalised them. Some version of Women’s Liberation jostles with paranoiac fears over vast government conspiracies and cover-ups; the sudden intermixing of racially white and black cultures on home turf intersects with the war in Vietnam.
At the same time, the 1960s were, for the USA and other Western countries, a period when mass media exploded – and seemed to truly mediate and distort all lived experience, whether through the TV window of the nightly news, or the big screen fantasies of Hollywood movie entertainment. De Palma’s earliest shorts reflect his wide-eyed immersion in both popular and art cinema traditions (Wotan’s Wake, 1962); his commissioned documentaries explore new “modes of vision” in technology and art (The Responsive Eye, 1966); and his collaboration with avant-garde theatre guru Richard Schechner’s The Performance Group in Dionysus in 69 (1970) captured – across a split-screen – the heady dream to “break on through to the other side” of all inhibiting social codes and conventions, even to the point of shattering and fleeing the screen-spectacle itself.
None of these formative experiences in 1960s counterculture ever entirely leave De Palma, even at the most seemingly mainstream moments of his career, such as Mission: Impossible (1996). Some of the actors from his earliest efforts keep popping up, such as De Niro and especially the ultra-stylised William Finley (1940-2012). Experimenting with “expanded vision” (for instance, with split or multiple screens) remains an enduring passion. The confrontational politics do not disappear, either, as Redacted (2007), his fierce anti-war pamphlet for the Internet age, proves. Even the dream of ultimately “breaking out” of society’s status quo returns – now in cosmic or apocalyptic terms – in, respectively, Mission to Mars (2000) and Snake Eyes (1998), the latter of which was originally to conclude with a giant tidal wave washing the whole mess of Atlantic City down the drain.
De Palma’s oft-repeated account of his wild 1960s ride, however, concludes with a nasty sting in the tale. At the time of Greetings or Hi, Mom!, he appeared on a television talk show. As he recalls it, he took the opportunity to extoll the virtues of personal freedom and political revolution. But at a certain point, the host politely interrupted – in order to cut to an advertisement selling some banal consumer product. It was a primal scene of disillusionment in the Life of Brian: he had been swallowed up by the dominant capitalistic, media system; he had become just another entertaining diversion, a sideshow in the carnival of America’s self-propagation. So many of his films – from Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), on which he lost creative control, to Redacted and beyond, will re-tell some version, duly transposed, of this “formative experience” that bred life-long wariness and cynicism in him. Qualities of character that (as, for example, producer Art Linson’s affectionate portrait of the director in A Pound of Flesh makes clear) have no doubt helped him navigate the regularly treacherous waters of commercial filmmaking.
The De Palma with which most filmgoers and specialist cinephiles are familiar does not really begin, however, with Wotan’s Wake or his first, modest feature, a comedy of manners titled The Wedding Party (1964). It starts with Sisters in 1973 – where he took the Alfred Hitchcock inspiration initially declared in Murder à la Mod (1967) and applied it to the genre of the modern thriller. It is the “royal road” of productions leading from Sisters to Body Double (1984) that cemented De Palma’s post-countercultural persona in the public eye – for better and for worse, in terms of the rise-and-fall vicissitudes of his entire career.
This crystallisation of De Palma in the industrial marketplace as a thriller/horror specialist almost meant (again, for better and for worse) that certain genres became off-limits for him: his comedies (such as Wise Guys  and The Bonfire of the Vanities ) registered as professional low-points; and his love of rock music and its culture – energetically brandished in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), but unable to find fulfilment in a Jim Morrison (of The Doors) biopic starring John Travolta – passed into the distant background.
It is far too easy to reduce De Palma’s work since Sisters (and even before it) to a parade of clearly recurring thematic situations: voyeurism, confinement, doppelgängers, transgression, spying, psychological blockage, failed revolt, and so on. Here, too, De Palma’s public re-treading over his colourful autobiographical experiences – such as photographically spying on his father’s adulterous affairs – only serves to confirm and reinforce this reductive tendency. We need a different way to approach De Palma’s cinema.
Some suggestive remarks by the scholar Thomas Elsaesser can give us a hand here. He once wrote of the director Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor, 1963), within and at the edge of the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s:
Fuller’s particular genius cannot be adequately gauged by a strictly thematic analysis, although such an analysis clearly belongs to the homework of any conscientious critic. Nevertheless, it is not a director’s themes that make his work important but what he makes of them … Talking about “themes” often becomes a shorthand way of talking about a director’s vision, his style and his artistic or moral concerns. (4)
This lesson in mise en scène criticism is a good one, and it still holds good for De Palma today. As Elsaesser commented of Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), “The stress is on a-symmetry, centrifugal forces, with the plot full of red herrings, dramatic non-sequiturs, and an editing technique that makes both narrative and space progress in fits and starts”. (5)
De Palma was blessed with some remarkably prescient critical commentaries relatively early in his career, when that decade-long run of strong films from Sisters to Body Double established his reputation. For example, the French-American critic Michael Henry Wilson (later a collaborator with Scorsese) defined, with striking precision, the kind of cinema that De Palma does make, as distinct from the kind he does not make:
Unlike Martin Scorsese, De Palma belongs to a breed of artists who do not create to express themselves, but express themselves to create. His primary interest lies in the handling of signs and figures, in subverting codes and their conventions, in the dialectics of objective and subjective shots, in the intricate alchemy through which fiction comes into existence. (6)
Wilson’s formulation here is spot-on. De Palma, beginning with Sisters, became a narrative filmmaker par excellence. Yet, while immersing us in the necessary thrills and twists of a plot, he also stands outside the fiction-machine, showing us how its pieces, levels and elements come together – and also how they fly apart. Intriguingly, this deep but spontaneously reflexive or deconstructive tendency takes us all the way back to De Palma’s roots in aspects of the 1960s avant-garde. Because, no matter the specific narrative function served by De Palma’s formal games, one thing, above all else, strikes us about the “intricate alchemy” of his films today.
The tour de force split-screen sequence at the climax of Passion (2012), for example, marks an unexpected rendezvous between De Palma’s cinema and contemporary multi-media, installation art (Chantal Akerman, Harun Farocki, Isaac Julien, Godard) – where filmmakers sometimes disassemble and reassemble their existing filmic works, spreading them across multiple screens in the gallery space. In this scenario, De Palma could be seen as providing the pure cinema that current digital media art abstracts, complexifies and plays with further.
But is Passion pure cinema, while modern media art is impure cinema? Maybe De Palma himself thinks so, ambivalently: his films are filled with every new computer technology, but he insists (whenever he can) on shooting glamorous 35 millimetre with old-school cinematographers such as José Luis Alcaine. Ultimately, the force and ingenuity of De Palma’s cinema comes from the fact that he has always embraced a mixed-media impurity. From the grubby traces of Jack Smith-style theatrics in Wotan’s Wake to the mobile phone video transmissions of Passion, De Palma loves to make cinema from what is not-cinema.
So De Palma incites consideration of a great (and often undervalued) tradition in cinema, a specific aesthetic and cultural context – alongside other masters including Sergio Leone, Jerry Lewis, Kathryn Bigelow, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, Bigas Luna and George Miller, all the way up to Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Vera Chytilová, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. That is to say, the masters of pure cinema, at the very least in a certain sensational tradition. (7) But we also wonder, with impurity, whether there is a more properly sentimental approach to the experience of De Palma’s movies that is just as important and valid.
It can sometimes be suspected that certain directors are important not so much (or not only) for the intrinsic richness of their art, as for their significance at a particular moment in a moviegoer’s life. Some filmmakers open up something crucial for us as cinephiles, a way of seeing, understanding and (let’s not forget) enjoying the medium of cinema. This process is not bound by cinema history, but rather is keyed to the vicissitudes of personal history – it doesn’t matter whether you paid your ticket to Carrie (1976) as an adult in the ‘70s or whether you stumbled upon Femme Fatale (2002) as a teenager in the new online millennium – the same kick, the same flash of discovery can apply. Whatever the time or place, for over 55 years now, the revelation of De Palma’s work has been there, lying in wait for you.
And this, after all, is not simply a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just as theories of psychological development teach us that no layer of an individual – as a baby, a child, an adolescent, etc. – ever completely disappears, and always co-exists (sometimes in friction) alongside the subsequent layers, so too the discovery of De Palma is something we can always re-live, with each major new film of his that we encounter. That thrill is inexhaustible …
There is a De Palma Age in the autobiographies of many of us – just as there is an Anaïs Nin Age or a David Bowie Age. Are we thereby suggesting that the appeal of De Palma’s art is essentially adolescent – if not nerdish – and that its ideal spectator is something like the wide-eyed teenager played by Keith Gordon in Dressed to Kill (1980), turned on by the gee-whiz mechanics of audio-visual devices? Not exactly: that would be to play into the hands of the smug humanists once again, placing De Palma at a low level of the aesthetic and cultural hierarchy. Rather, there is a dare to spectators from De Palma: to take the pure with the impure, and to interrelate them in our minds as ingeniously as he himself does in cinematic language.
Right now, we can imagine a budding young filmmaker or critic discovering a De Palma movie for the first time, soaking up its elaborate formal conceits, and having his or her eyes and ears opened by all the amazing, boundlessly clever tricks with time, space, narrative and perspective. We cannot today imagine the cinema – or life as a cinephile – without the dazzling, virtuosic, mind-boggling games that De Palma has opened up for us, and that he explores at the height of his inventiveness.
2. For an intriguing (if excessively abstracted) account of De Palma’s place in a strictly defined pure cinema tradition, see Bruce Isaacs, The Art of Pure Cinema: Hitchcock and His Imitators (London: Oxford University Press, 2020). back
3. See interview in Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (Penguin, 1970), p. 61. back
4. Thomas Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood (Routledge, 2012), p. 59. back
5. Ibid. back
7. Pure cinema is, ultimately, many things (and this would be where we depart from Bruce Isaacs’ argument – see note 2). If pure cinema, as a term or an idea, cannot encompass the formalist comedy of Ernst Lubitsch or Frank Tashlin, the melodrama of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger or Douglas Sirk, the impassioned minimalism of Chantal Akerman or Michael Snow, the baroque visions of Josef von Sternberg, the paroxysmic fragmentation of Godard and John Cassavetes or the frenetic vitalism of Boris Barnet – not just the reflexive shocks, games and abstractions of the thriller/horror/action genre – what use is it, finally? Hitchcock (among others) named it, but he doesn’t own it! back
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin April/May 2018