One suspects that the various techniques were either used to cover an absence of content or that the techniques themselves were deemed more fundamental than ideas of substance.” So read Variety’s review of Brian De Palma’s first feature film The Wedding Party. When it was written, it was probably intended as a backhanded compliment, but on the eve of the September release of De Palma’s 31st feature The Black Dahlia, like a wedding DJ and his crusty 45 of “Chicken Dance,” this tune continues to play to the tight-assed gyrations of too many film critics for far too long.
Perpetually a crucible to critics who liked only the most tasteful dash of sensualism mixed in with their rigid formalism, the release of each new De Palma film would inevitably bring forth offended defenses of sacrosanct cinematic aridity, and that was only if he got off easy. More often, he’d be accused of outright plagiarism. Or, as the Harvard Lampoon wrote when it saluted Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni and even De Palma himself, “all of whom were robbed by Brian De Palma in the making of Blow Out,” “it takes a thief.”
Pauline Kael’s famous affinity for De Palma’s films aside, few other great filmmakers have had more contemptuous relationships with film critics than he did. Unlike many other cinematic titans who simply shrugged off the various factions of middlebrow—the bluehair feminists, the part-time humanists, the Hitchcock obsessives—De Palma repeatedly dwelled on the critical brickabats. Maybe he thought he wasn’t being taken seriously as an artist, maybe he thought they were responsible for his comparatively midrange level of box-office success, with the spikes in interest usually coming from his projects hacking for studios (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible—which isn’t to say these are less worthy of praise, especially in the case of the latter).
Far more than failing to break into the realm of blockbusterdom, the critical rejection has undoubtedly been frustrating for a director who belonged to Peter Biskand’s rat pack of ’70s New Hollywood filmmaking with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, none of whom have received public floggings so consistently. Which isn’t to say they all haven’t taken their knocks every now and again. (Well, maybe not so much Scorsese. How do you expect critics to hate on a guy who says viewing the likes of Stromboli was a formative childhood experience?) They have merely been vindicated by the endurance of their touchstone works, whereas mention of De Palma is usually the setup to a punchline—usually The Bonfire of the Vanities or the unjustly maligned Mission to Mars.
Which is all to say: thank Swan for critics. That’s the hell of it, really. The more critics got on De Palma’s kinky nuts, the more he was provoked to act out his own worst (and by “worst,” I mean best) impulses. Not unlike Carrie bringing down holy hell upon her classmates to the tune of “Plug it up! Plug it up!,” De Palma’s oeuvre owes at least some part of its brash vitality to the destructivism his critics sparked in the director’s bruised ego. When modern critics attuned to his wavelength dare to make analogies to other auteurs, they don’t name check Hitchcock. They go straight to Godard. With all apologies to Scorsese, Coppola and those other guys, there’s only one American director capable of creating a work of hate art as excoriating as Weekend.
In anticipation of The Black Dahlia’s release, fresh off of its premiere at Venice, Slant Magazine is presenting a symposium of De Palma fanatics to present a look back at a turbulent career. Check back every day for a new review and, just maybe, a fresh dose of abuse against shortsighted critics too genteel to admit they get off on De Palma. Eric Henderson