Skip to main content

My true wife is my movie, not you.

De Palma
(2015)

If nothing else, De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary on the visionary director (“visionary” is an over worn adjective to daub on auteur-related movie posters, but if there’s one director who’s all about vision, it’s Brian De Palma) is a reminder of how few cinematic craftsman today possess a truly distinctive style. More than that, who embrace a distinctive filmic language; De Palma openly acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock, but quite rightly has a different take to those who accuse him of being little more than a copycat; the real surprise should be that he’s the only one who really followed and developed the form Hitch created.


For a piece on a master of the set-piece flourish, the meticulously, intricately-crafted tension teaser, Baumbach and Paltrow have settled on the most straightforward, linear approach possible, but it scarcely matters. Sit De Palma down and have him go through his career in sequence, anecdotalising the productions, the state of the industry generally and his own outlook on where he was and where he is. 


There’s much that’s familiar herein (his warped family background, in particular, including his father’s affairs that informed Dressed to Kill’s young protagonist, and how De Palma used to go and watch him, an orthopaedic surgeon, operate). What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer good-humoured exuberance of the man. He seems able to see the funny side of most things. Yet, while you can certainly see his twisted wit in some of his vehicles (any time he casts John Lithgow, in particular), give him something more expressly comedic or satirical (Wise Guys, Bonfire of the Vanities) and the results tend to come up short.


I think it was The Untouchables that first got me into De Palma, and I have to admit there are still several of his earliest pictures I’ve yet to get round to catching. Perhaps because I discovered him at the point of his studio renaissance, some of his earlier, unleashed horror-thrillers leave a more variable impression, sometimes absolutely working, sometimes excessive in the wrong ways, but always displaying astonishing virtuosity. I can appreciate both the arguments relating to the apparent misogyny in his narratives and his own well-thumbed excuse that women imperilled are simply more cinematically interesting (as to his confession that he likes to follow them around, well…), but his detours into more mainstream fare, be it the gangster or action genre, rather disprove the latter.


What De Palma rarely is as a director is boring (there are a few; for all its style, Obsession tends to have an anaesthetic effect on me – it may just be the Cliff Robertson factor). As he notes of his most controversial, critic- and censor-baiting period, “The fact that Pauline liked me made people argue about me constantly”. Kael was De Palma’s staunchest defender, and at times did seem to be pulling him singlehandedly through a minefield of his own knee-jerk devising (Body Double was precisely designed to inflame his most vehement critics).


De Palma: You have to know where everything is. How close is the jeopardy? I’m scrupulous about that.

In the era of shakycam (albeit, its proliferation isn’t quite as disruptive as it was at its zenith), every one of its adherents should be sat down à la Alex in A Clockwork Orange and forced to watch De Palma’s approach to action, because not only is he mesmerisingly distinctive in how sees space and juggles the different elements that comprise a sequence, he’s also entirely coherent in terms of geography. With often breath-taking results. As he says of his groundwork, “In my movies the run up goes on forever”. Take a gander at the prom queen scene in Carrie, or the art gallery dalliance in Dressed to Kill, the “Odessa Steps” in The Untouchables and the subway chase in Carlito’s Way, and prepare to be staggered by the bravura craftsmanship of his constructions every time.


It’s interesting to hear De Palma discuss his use of trademarks, such as how he discovered split screen didn’t work for action and his yen for Steadicam (in particular first using it for Blow Out, and also on executing that film’s famous 360 degree shot), but best of all are his anecdotes: on Orson Welles (he needed cue cards; De Palma, formerly in awe of the titan, considered “This is sloppy”) Bernard Herrman (“He was scary”), Cliff Robertson (Vilmos Zigmond backing the actor up to a mahogany wall and exclaiming, of his perma-tan, “You are the same colour as this wall! How can I light you?”), execs’ responses – to the downbeat ending of Blow Out (“They were appalled”), to Body Double generally (he had carte blanche “Until they saw it”) – Oliver Stone (De Palma had him taken off the Scarface set because he was talking to the actors), De Niro (surprisingly, not learning his lines on The Untouchables), Casualties of War generally (“Good old Sean” he says, of Penn’s “in the name of the art” mistreatment of Michael J Fox), Bonfire of the Vanities (he considers the movie is fine, “just don’t read the book”) Carlito’s Way (Pacino having finally had enough after having been forced to run around all night in a huge sweaty leather coat at the height of summer: “Al took the train home. He thinks you’re crazy”) his original ending to Snake Eyes (“Nobody thought it worked”), dealing with Mission to Mars’ special effects (“endless repetition”, and tipping his hat to them, but being unable to understand how Spielberg and Zemeckis do it). Oh, and how he finds car chases boring.


We also hear a steady stream of stoic disappointments at the failures of his pictures to strike a nerve with audiences: “I can’t make a better movie than this” (Carlito) “Nobody went to see it – it was a terrible disappointment” (Casualties). Certainly, he’s a director very much identified as relying on periodic hits to kick start the ever-lurking phantom of unbankability. However, it’s notable that many of his best works are those where he decided he had to do something in aid of such commercial clout (Carrie, The Untouchables); I do think he’s at his best when married with really strong material that isn’t of his own devising or predilections, the odd exception aside, even if in later years he came a cropper with a series of questionable high-profile choices (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia).


The director’s also sanguine about where he is now (it’s five years since he directed,  and it was three when De Palma was made). He comments that 99% of those who try making movies are going nowhere, and “anybody who has a career, it’s a miracle”, that there’s nothing good about the Hollywood system, in terms of creativity. And, drawing on the example of Hitchcock, De Palma suggests that, in most cases, it is during their 30s, 40s and 50s that directors are at their peak, that it “physically wears you down, no question about it”. He’s probably right. There’s the occasional exception, sure (Mad Max: Fury Road), but even those who still churning them out (Spielberg, Scorsese, Ridley Scott) are often doing so with consistent technical skill but noticeably less passion or intent than hitherto. Still, I hope De Palma has a few more good pictures left in him, although like so many of his era, the difficulty is now more about getting the backing than a good idea.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.