The Shape of Substance: Brian De Palma and The Function of Form

Maybe our mothers were right all along. Maybe true beauty really does come from within. Or doesn’t it?

The Shape of Substance: Brian De Palma and The Function of Form

Maybe our mothers were right all along. Maybe true beauty really does come from within. Or doesn’t it? A considerable part of today’s critical establishment would seem to agree with Mom’s assertion, for the tired “style over substance” rant is currently all too frequently aimed at films that display a dash of visual flair. In fact, some reviewers are so taken by the concept that they will praise a movie’s aesthetic only to lay bare the gaping emptiness underneath.

Just ask yourself how many times you’ve come across the following platitudes:

For all its visual splendor, this movie is really just a mindless piece of crap.”
“The film’s technical bravura can’t make up for its sluggish plot.”
“A typical case of flashy pictures camouflaging for shallowness.”
“Fortunately the director has kept the stylistic tomfoolery to a minimum.”
“If you like gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics above a decent story, this one’s for you.”

Apparently, looks are deceiving and we’d better believe the critics instead, for according to those who know best, the Holy Grail of cinema lies buried deep below its silver surface where absolutely no one is able see it.

The treachery of images

It’s not hard to figure out where this skepticism of visual style comes from. After all, we’ve all been fooled by appearances before. Whether it’s the luring call of commerce or the friendly face of politics, reality proved to us time and again that looks are not to be trusted. Much like our mothers used to tell us, it’s what’s inside the packaging that counts. So whenever we come face to face with a slick presentation, our antennae go up, our faith crumbles and the magic comes to a screeching halt as we try to see through the magician’s trick. If it looks impressive on the outside, we reckon, something rotten must be at the core: All style and no substance. It’s the knee-jerk response of a mediawise audience that has trained itself to distrust glossy surfaces. Seen through our world-weary eyes a pretty visage has thus become suspicious by definition and every blinking light, every bell and every whistle is more evidence against the defendant.

Fair enough, the entertainment industry sure loves those bells and whistles. And in spite of our skepticism, a part of us must love them too, because the average moviegoer pays big bucks to behold them. Without the slightest hint of guilt, we marvel at the latest breakthrough achievement in special effects, outrageous art direction, bling bling costume design or a set-wrecking stunt sequence. As long as we’re not expected to take the thrill anymore seriously than a theme park ride, we relish in superficiality as much as we look down upon it. Hardly surprising then, that directors of eye-popping Hollywood extravaganzas like The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman are more than happy to dazzle their audiences without having anything particular to say. If it’s flashy pictures we ask for, it is flashy pictures we’ll get.

But if we are to believe the critical “connoisseurs,” these derivative box office attractions are only the tip of the iceberg. Just check the reviews, in print and on the Web, and you’ll notice that the style-over-substance accusation is just as easily brought up in reference to offbeat fare like Lola Rennt, The Limey, Fight Club, In The Mood For Love, Elephant and Oldboy. This would imply that, according to quite a number of (largely self-proclaimed) experts, the names Tom Tykwer, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant and Chan-wook Park deserve to be thrown on the same pile as Stephen Sommers, Simon West, McG, Michael Bay, Stephen Norrington and Pitof. With all due respect to the latter league of hard-working gentlemen: Jean-Claude Van Damme may kick serious butt, he’s not exactly Sean Penn either, is he?

Even if we have good reasons to frown upon the hollow spectacle of the average blockbuster, it’s quite a different thing—not to say rather crass—to claim that a medium’s formalist qualities are only skin-deep. To claim that is to confuse aesthetics with cosmetics and to ridicule the meaning of form altogether. But precisely this has become the order of the day. A persistent focus on false appearances and communicative noise has caused audiences and critics alike to mistake the exception for the rule. As a result, we’ve arrived at a point where style in film is hardly taken seriously at all.

Have we forgotten that once upon a time, long long ago, style was not supposed to distract from the message, let alone disguise a lack of content? To the contrary: that style was supposed to express substance, reveal it, enhance it, complement it? And if we did forget all about pure cinema and effective communication, are we still able to separate the fancy gift wraps from the real thing?

Form Follows Function and other dictums

As it seems, evaluative film criticism analyzes style from a predominantly functionalist standpoint. There’d better be a solid motivation behind whatever fills the screen, no matter what. Actually, this very motive is about the only thing that interests most reviewers—the visuals themselves, or how they make us feel, pretty much leave them cold. It is telling for how lazy film criticism has become that reviewers don’t even bother to look for the meaning encrypted in the images. They’re attempting to read without an interest in the vocabulary.

In line with the famous modernist motto Form Follows Function—a principle that justifies stylistic choices as the organic consequence of a certain intended purpose—filmic form is almost exclusively appreciated for its utilitarian potential to ensure the fulfillment of a much Higher Goal: the story, or more particularly, its substance. This humble design philosophy never discouraged true modernists from establishing a not-so-humble artistic idiom all of their own. Some would even argue the Form-Follows-Function dictum was their mythical excuse to legitimize an out-and-out formalist aesthetic indeed. Cinema’s contemporary critical elite has all the same dispensed with every possible grain of salt to take the functionalist doctrine to new extremes.

In a nutshell, the “culturally correct” assumption is this: a substantial story equals a ripping yarn built around a lofty theme, played out by characters you can believe in and backed up by a fair amount of logic. Compared to this giant cornerstone of Good Taste, a movie style or form is seen as a redundant triviality, acceptable only insofar it doesn’t overshadow the fundamental narrative and serves the aforementioned intended purpose, being the narrative. Note the word “serves”—the substance police make it abundantly clear that the dominant position is already taken. Style has become the slave to story’s dominion instead of the elemental means of expression it ought to be.

I am not implying that there is something wrong with narrative film. Neither am I placing formalism above realism. The heart of the problem lies in a rather pointless but seemingly ineradicable distinction in film criticism that keeps emphasizing style as a separate entity from substance, whereas the one should be biologically connected to the other. Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard described this natural synthesis better than anybody else:

“To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.”

And still critics choose to splice the unity of style and content over and over again. A real pity, because Godard’s formulation carries style beyond the mere serviceable and offers a way of acknowledging form as the outward manifestation of content. This criterion—style as the shape of substance—may sound pretentious, but those who examine films accordingly are likely to hit upon levels of meaning overlooked by others.

Three degrees of style-driven cinema

Valid points could be made in favor of specific films that do value style over substance. To name but one: if style over substance is as despicable as some experts believe it to be, what makes substance over style more praiseworthy? But before we can truly begin to get our head around style’s significance, it should be made clear that the style-over-substance label isn’t just sloppily applied, but insufficient to begin with. The word “over” suggests that style prevails at the cost of substance—as if style by itself is incapable of prompting any thought. True in the case of Catwoman, for sure, but Elephant or The Limey hardly deserve the same qualification. With this in mind, it is reasonable to propose two degrees of style-driven cinema independent from style over substance: style as substance and substance in style.

In films that fall under the style as substance category, style takes on a substance of its own. These movies are, quite literally, about their style. In a visually oriented world, that must count for something. Estimable examples are just about any film by Quentin Tarantino, as well as Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, the Coen brother’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, Roman Coppola’s CQ, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Sin City by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Such titles are so filled to the brink with aesthetic value, mood, kinetic poetry and cultural reference that their stylistic bravado alone functions as a sort of exoskeleton holding the film together, even without the holy trinity of plot, theme and character development as traditional backbone. Predictable enough for something so dependent on style, whether you dig these movies or not is more a question of personal taste than anything else. No matter how well they’re put together, they are only as profound as they resonate for you. But however you may feel about them, at least they have plentiful personality.

Substance in style, the third degree of style-driven cinema, is something else entirely. And apart from the nametag I just gave it, it’s nothing new either; going back as it does to the cinema of old school formalists like Fritz Lang, Michael Powell and Orson Welles. These renowned visual stylists used form to evoke and flesh out an inherent message—hence substance in style. Lang, Powell and Welles never settled for style as the proverbial icing on the cake; their aesthetic sense was always an integral part of the whole baking process, down to the careful selection of only the finest spices and freshest ingredients to bring out that special pastry flavor. The result? Not your average brownie, that’s for sure. Their films are so tightly composed that form and content become near inseparable. A perfect harmony is achieved in a style that reinforces the story and a story that elicits the style in return. Sadly, new releases that pick up on this almost forgotten recipe are likely to be mistaken for brainless eye candy.

To say that substance in style is underrated these days would be an understatement. It is in desperate need of a re-appraisal. So let’s concentrate on the highest degree of style-driven cinema, then, and investigate a prime example. And while we’re conducting this inquiry, why not treat it like an actual case? We could assemble the facts and handle them as they would in court. You, the reader, can be the jury. Let’s see… Which visual stylist will we sue for this? But of course! Who else could be more appropriate than the usual suspect?

Your Honor, in the case of Style vs. Substance, I call to the stand the defendant:
Brian De Palma.

The peculiar case of Brian De Palma

How ironic can you get? The filmmaker who has arguably suffered most from the style-over-substance stigma—in itself the product of a deep-rooted skepticism of fancy appearances—has spent the better part of a career spanning four decades exploring the treachery of images as a central theme. Yet somehow, Brian De Palma’s stylistic sensibility consistently has been taken at face value.

What is behind this peculiar case of film critic’s myopia? Diversion, mostly. In a sense, De Palma made it way too easy for the prosecution to defeat him, having regularly handed his detractors the beating stick on a silver platter. Especially De Palma’s fondness for bloody set pieces involving luscious ladies in peril made him the favorite whipping boy for critics with a nut to crack about the deteriorating state of cinema.

An over-confident prosecution warms up the jury:

Look at all that gratuitous sex and violence! Look at all that high-buffed gloss, those showy camera angles! Those ridiculously far-fetched plot twists! Just look at the ripped-off sequences this fraud wants us to call “homages!” Surely such an oversized bag of tricks must mean the filmmaker in question has a lot of shallowness to compensate for.

The defense rises:

Objection, Your Honor! Counsel is arguing his case.

Objection sustained. Signature De Palma techniques like the split screen, the long take, slow motion and the stalking camera are usually dismissed as style for style’s sake, simply because they attract so much attention to themselves. It never occurs to the De Palma naysayers that these techniques do so for a reason: because there are messages encrypted in the form. Indeed, to “see through” the surface of De Palma’s cinematic design means missing the point completely. Its substance is in the style.

The prosecution bites:

Very well, let’s shed some light on this supposed collective blind spot to get a hint of what we are missing, shall we? How about Mr. De Palma’s self-reflexive use of slow motion? Surely there’s no way to defend this frivolous indulgence of the shameless aesthete?

The defense takes up the challenge and explains how slow motion is a technique De Palma has developed over many years and that its application can be justified for various reasons. To heighten the sense of urgency and create suspense in what normally would be surprise (Carrie, The Fury). To add emotional resonance and dramatically punctuate the narrative (Obsession, Casualties of War). To analyze cause and effect and deconstruct the method in the temporal madness (The Untouchables, Raising Cain). To give grace to tragedy and amplify the inevitable by suspending and almost freezing the time that’s bringing it (Blow Out, Femme Fatale). And finally to sustain moments that usually pass us by much too quickly and enrapture us with life’s naked essence. One could call that a “frivolous indulgence,” the defense calls it “pretty damn substantial.”

But we’re only scratching the surface, really. Let’s not isolate one technique from the larger objective. If we track back and overview De Palma’s erratic filmography—shifting as it does between hit and flop, cult, mainstream and avant-garde—a returning stylistic pattern becomes evident. Not only do his films frequently contradict with each other, they each contain a multitude of antagonisms of their own. They’re at once moral and manipulative, compassionate and calculating, gorgeous and repellent, spellbinding and unsettling, sardonic and rhapsodic, gloomy and sublime. Looking at a De Palma film is entering a land of paradox. No wonder the man has always inspired controversy: De Palma’s entire oeuvre is the pinnacle of conflict.

The prosecution can’t stand it any longer:

Objection, Your Honor. Lack of foundation. Pretty pictures may be the defendant’s specialty, but what’s the point? Stylistic coherence cannot pass for substance when ultimately it leads to nothing. Forget the form, where’s the meaning?

Overruled. The meaning is right there in the form. Right there in that recurring paradox motif. De Palma has explained himself as an artist who works on moral outrage. Another typical De Palma axiom: no matter how immoral his movies may appear (his talent for infusing all things nasty with poetry is legendary), at the heart they are intricate tales of morality. From the revenge fantasies that make up Carrie and The Fury to the cathartic moment of forgiveness in Casualties of War; from the fruitless run for redemption at the close of Blow Out to the divine second chance given in Femme Fatale; from the sleazy adventures of an all-American housewife to the hooker with a heart of gold in Dressed to Kill—they’re all vivid representations of the dualism between the righteous and the crooked, the vulnerable and the obscene, of predestination versus willpower, of crime and punishment.

De Palma’s characteristic use of discordant style elements like the double, parallel action sequences, split screen and split-diopter shots, rear projection, reverse angles, clashing archetypes and symbolic inversions serve not to show off his directing skills, but are there to help the viewer see both sides of the moral coin and explore the effect of contrarian choices during similar opportunities. What better way to lay bare the mechanisms of fate, choice, power, obsession and betrayal than to let your audience experience the subjectivity of truth firsthand through multiple points of view, or to follow two people who are either polar opposites or a close match within the same storyline? If the similarity is obvious, the difference will be easier to detect. And it’s the difference that matters in a morality tale; the difference between fortune and tragedy, life and death, innocence and guilt, failure and success. Knowing that nuance is to know right from wrong, or to realize how hard it is to make that difference.

Despite the archetypes and schematic structures, De Palma never arrives at a black and white conclusion. He deceives expectation to reveal there is no such thing as a single truth, or that our perception of it is incomplete. Even when his doubles expose a yin/yang dynamic right from the beginning, he complicates matters by reversing roles halfway through the film (Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne in Snake Eyes), juggling around with false identities (Gloria Revelle and Holly Body in Body Double, the face swapping in Mission: Impossible) or fusing his antagonists (Dr. Robert Elliott and Bobbi in Dressed to Kill, Carter and Cain in Raising Cain). This eloquent masquerade and constant shifting of perspective is what makes De Palma’s oeuvre so fascinatingly ambiguous. Ultimately, all his works share a uniquely personal vision on the duality of Man.

Kubrick vs. De Palma: two kinds of visual stylists

The trial suddenly takes a shocking turn when the prosecution is permitted to call for a surprise witness: none other that the great Stanley Kubrick! We hear a loud gasp and muttering from the corner of the defense. Just now that Style was making progress, in comes this other bearded American auteur known and, yes, actually respected for his formalistic excellence. This powerhouse director should be on the defendant’s side—they’re even linked thematically!—but oddly enough he’s here to testify in the name of Substance instead. Beads of sweat form on Mr. De Palma’s forehead. If there were one visionary with the baggage to crush his defense at the final hour, it would be this revered colleague.

The prosecution thanks the late Mr. Kubrick for coming:

We know you’re not much of a talker, especially in your current condition, so we’ll keep it short. You are without a doubt familiar with the defendant’s… how shall we put it… baroque stylistic idiom. The evidence shown over the course of this trial—location photographs, storyboards, computer models—have given us an idea about the excessive lengths Mr. De Palma is willing to go in order to establish his cinematic vision prior to shooting. One would presume that a skilled director like yourself is as concerned as Mr. De Palma when it comes to aesthetic matters like, say, the placing of the camera or the staging of a scene. Could you please tell the Court if you approve the formalist working tactic of the defendant?

From the witness box, Mr. Kubrick lets out a deep sigh:

I find that, with very few exceptions, it’s important to save your cinematic ideas until you have rehearsed the scene in the actual place you’re going to film it. The first thing to do is to rehearse the scene until something happens that is worth putting on film—only then should you worry about how to film it. The what must always precede the how.

Sound bites like these may not have won Kubrick any Oscars during his lifetime, but the members of the jury are nodding approvingly today. Aha! The what must always precede the how: Form Follows Function. This sounds more assuring than what the furious Mr. De Palma proclaimed earlier in the trial, when he interrupted the examination of substance-expert Marcia Pally by banging his fist on the table, shouting:

I’m a visual stylist, a VISUAL STYLIST! I’m dealing with a white canvas up there and I may be one of the few practitioners doing that today. […] The content of my films is a secondary issue. I don’t start with an idea about content; I start with a VISUAL IMAGE.

There it is. Style shapes substance instead of style serves substance. De Palma’s formalist working method is the antipode to Kubrick’s more widely accepted functionalist approach. His most personal films are, in his own words, “driven by visual ideas, as opposed to character-driven or story-driven.” Just listen to De Palma’s initial inspiration for making neo-noir thriller Femme Fatale:

I always wanted to make a movie with a film noir protagonist because I think these women are so much fun—they’re dark, they’re sexy, they’re manipulative. I tried to find a venue to make that work in and then I got this idea of putting this noir story into this dream sequence, because I don’t think you can do noir straight in a kind of realistic setting.

In De Palma’s case, form finds function. He uses a style element as starting point—in this case an archetype belonging to a specific genre he finds amusing—to later spin a story around it. Does this reversed working order have a noticeable impact over the end result? The judge gives the last word to Mr. Kubrick:

I think it’s worthwhile for anyone interested in filmmaking to study the contrast between the films of Eisenstein and those of Chaplin, which is another way of referring to the difference between style and content. The greatness of Eisenstein’s films represents the triumph of cinematic style over heavy-handed, often simple-minded content. Chaplin’s films are masterpieces of content, taste, and sensibility over what is virtually a noncinematic kind of technique. If I had to choose between the two, I would take Chaplin.

Ah, that settles it then! The prosecution smiles and lets the judge know it has no further questions. Mr. Kubrick continues:

Fortunately, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive…

Absolute silence in the courtroom. Oh my, the witness just blew the case! Read Kubrick’s last sentence again: The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. This goes a long way to explaining why Kubrick’s films were stylistically just as revisionist as they were in terms of content, and why the seemingly superficial qualities of De Palma’s films prove more complex and multilayered with each subsequent viewing.

Even if De Palma’s working method might not have worked for Kubrick, it’s just another approach to arrive at basically the same thing. Whereas Kubrick’s cinematic visions were tailor-made to fit a predetermined subject of interest, De Palma trusts his formalist instincts to intuitively lead him to the root of his obsession. That doesn’t mean that Kubrick was a poorer visual stylist or that De Palma has fewer things to say; it just means different artists draw from different sources of inspiration. De Palma’s starting point is the form, for Kubrick it was content. Yet unlike Chaplin and Eisenstein, these two visual stylists meet each other halfway because of a shared interest in using the medium to its fullest.

Closing statement

My impression is that “style over substance” is less the skeptic’s phrase than it is the cynic’s. Its increased usage within critical circles indicates an ignorance of, or even latent contempt for, the unique possibilities of the cinematic art form. I wonder where this sarcasm stems from. Is it because reviewers today hold craftsmanship in higher esteem than artistry? Is it because film criticism puts too much emphasis on the mighty mechanics of plot, psychology and plausibility? Or is it simply the medium’s unparalleled photographic realism that urges critics to judge movies by naturalistic rather than aesthetic standards?

Probably all of the above. But whatever the reasons, they can’t be reason enough for style to be critically less regarded in the world of cinema than it is in the realms of literature, painting, design, architecture and performing arts. Have you ever stumbled upon a critical bashing of Shakespeare’s ornamental use of the iambic pentameter? I didn’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury… Have you reached a verdict?

This essay was first published on September 17, 2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran, at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite and cross-published on the House Next Door.

Peet Gelderblom

Peet Gelderblom is an award winning director and editor from the Netherlands with over 25 years of experience in films, documentaries, drama, television, commercials, video essays and online content.

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