“I’ve lived in empty places all my life. I don’t care where I live or what I look like.”
— Brian De Palma
“Critics—no maybe I should call them “reviewers” instead of critics—are looking for the latest thing rather than the truest thing.”
— Armond White, attempting to explain the critical abandonment of De Palma
In May, 2001, director Brian De Palma was honored with a one-month long retrospective, “The Responsive Eye,” at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Although De Palma had been taken seriously for decades by international critics, and had cultivated a large domestic audience, reviewers in the United States had been slow to recognize his achievements and progression as an artist. This event was seen by many as a breakthrough.
De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema. His career has spanned three decades and includes such touchstones as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible. Not only are these tremendously important works in their own right; De Palma’s characters, the phrases they utter and the philosophies they propitiate have been absorbed into our cultural vocabulary. Through persistence and longevity De Palma has created a body of work that is as moody and recalcitrant as it is aesthetically unassailable. The intensity and perceptivity of his works insures that a discussion of De Palma’s films is not merely a discussion of cinema but a discourse on the dynamics of human nature and our national psyche.
In spite of his popularity, De Palma is admittedly notorious. He has been accused of misanthropy, misogyny, cynicism—and their opposites: of “loving women,” of humanism, idealism and gushing romanticism. He is known alternately as a dispassionate plagiarist of Hitchcock and a maverick, a wicked satirist, an avant-gardist, a “sell-out”, a fiercely independent iconoclast and an intellectual; a creator of intensely personal or detached, deterministic and cerebral movies. As his own publicist, De Palma has at times been inflammatory. He is ambiguous or flagrantly opaque when discussing his own work and is at times willfully misleading. He is angered by his critics and occasionally peremptory with staunch advocates. De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, once described him as a man defined not by his continuities but by his incongruities: “He is his own opposite, if you will. He is his contradictions.” Yet the truth is that De Palma’s body of work is undeniably symmetrical and entirely consistent.
Animosity towards De Palma’s formative, ferocious works is subsiding, and the trend towards measured reappraisal of his value as a filmmaker has encroached on his reputation for vituperation and scandal. The critical logjam gave way between the 1998 release of Snake Eyes and September 2000, when De Palma turned sixty years old. Since then, nearly all of De Palma’s works—including the confrontational Sisters, elegant Obsession and cult touchstone Phantom of the Paradise—have been reissued on DVD. The continued popularity of his old and new works, coupled with a recent surge of enlightened Internet criticism and highly publicized retrospectives domestically and abroad attest to the growing recognition of his importance. Courses on De Palma are now taught in several major universities.
Although De Palma has never been cowed by negative criticism, it is probable that without it his body of work might look very different than it does. Provocation has helped him to clarify himself. His films evolve to become more quietly forceful. His obsessions are his obsessions; that he explores and re-explores them with such tenacity attests to his unwillingness to discard his essential ideologies. His allegiance to a risky set of ideas in the face of skepticism situates him in a battle of attrition against evolving sensibilities. Just as Hitchcock and Kubrick outgrew their labels, as decades pass it becomes far more difficult to dismiss Carrie and Dressed to Kill as misogynist diatribe because audiences are increasingly sophisticated in their ability to draw a distinction between what a character signifies and what a director intends to say. These obstinate labels, on the contrary, have been good for De Palma because they stimulate scrutiny, and scrutiny motivates De Palma to be lucid.
Because of the advocacy of critics and persistent theorists, in conjunction with Internet scholarship and intermittent bursts of enthusiasm by mainstream reviewers who recognize flutters of genius in a half dozen of his works, the hope never perishes that De Palma might one day receive the reckoning afforded to a Kubrick, Scorsese or Godard. It has never been feasible to discredit De Palma on the grounds he lacks talent—even Stanley Kauffmann, who disdained the works now considered De Palma’s greatest, never denied that De Palma was gifted. In fact, it was precisely De Palma’s aptitude that exasperated Kauffmann; he argued De Palma’s crime was that he did not apply his genius to the telling of moral stories. But De Palma’s stories are moral; it is their moral complexity that creates the impression they are amoral.
A cinema of fearlessness
In the 1970s a new cinematic language became necessary not merely to transcribe the incongruity and paradox of life but to enhance the ability of cinema to save life from sameness by revealing the art in existence. Brian De Palma’s work was initially hard to reconcile with the affable coherence of more accessible, less contentious movies. His work was, and still is, a reaction against the incorrect apprehension of reality, as well as the representation of reality in art. He prefers pessimism if it is accurate to optimism that is a gross distortion of life experience. In the wake of assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, films that fed rather than challenged complacency were vestigial leftovers, and audiences were famished not for platitudes disguised as comfort food but truth even when it hurt. De Palma’s films depict a world in which decency is imperative but rare and seldom rewarded; he offers a realistic representation of virtue’s motives and consequences, and a more honest appraisal of the impulse to be good. He presents action as a new mythology and antidote to paralysis and does so in a form that heightens the appreciation of reality rather than tries facetiously to persuade us that the world is arctic, corrosive and banal. De Palma’s career has been about testing the architectural integrity of cinema and encompasses his search for a balance between spectacle that ravishes the senses and emotional truth that invades the psyche at a subconscious level.
A visualist with an appreciation for the beauty of movement through geographies and across glittering surfaces, De Palma is constitutionally unable to make ugly films, and making them beautiful serves his purpose of locating existential splendor in chaos. He is fascinated by the discourse that transpires between film and spectator, and actively provokes our perception at deeper levels by colliding abstract symbols and polymorphous imagery, by offering more than one interpretation of a single event, and by integrating dream and reality without clarifying which is which in order to prove that in art such a distinction barely matters. As his work has become less edgy, it has become more philosophically challenging and, at times, subtly provocative—not provocative because of sex and violence, but as a result of an evolving sensibility that weds unconventional ideas with revelatory technique that sometimes contradicts or aggressively deceives the audience as to his intent.
De Palma is fearless when it comes to transposing patterns from one genre to another, and even when he works within the framework of a genre he manages to transcend easy categorization. Critics refer to Carrie and The Fury as horror films only because no more precise term exists to describe what they are. Is The Untouchables a western or a cop film? To call Mission: Impossible an espionage thriller is to reduce what is more properly described as a hybrid of Oedipus and Hamlet. Nearly three decades after its release, film theorists still quarrel over how to label Phantom of The Paradise.
Most every De Palma film conjures to mind at least one quintessential image, many of them metaphors in themselves: Carrie White soaked in pig’s blood at her own prom; Gillian, arms raised in the middle of a day-lit street as she tries to distinguish saviors from assassins in The Fury; Jack Terry straining to listen to the imperiled Sally through an earpiece on a subway platform in Blow Out; Tony Montana emerging from a swirl of smoke with a hand held rocket launcher in Scarface; Ethan Hunt suspended by a wire in Mission: Impossible; any frame extricated from the famous baby carriage sequence in The Untouchables. The images are potent enough; that they revivify contemplation of concepts is an even greater attribute.
His best films function as stories that enthrall us, paradoxes that trap us, and metaphors that expatiate the effort of a protagonist to cope with a fragmenting universe. De Palma adjusts for chaos and his films speak directly to people who feel, intuitively, that the world is coming apart at the seams but is not yet lost entirely. Even his ethical heroes are sentenced to linger in irreconcilable trauma. De Palma’s works comprise a relentless commentary on the world in which we live, even in instances where they masquerade as fully integrated commercial entertainments. His movies are soulful and inspiring even when they resolve in ambiguity, bitterness and mourning, if only because so many of his protagonists do, to some degree, master chaos.
Emergence of an auteur
De Palma was born in 1940. Pauline Kael, in a November 8, 1976 essay, situates De Palma among his contemporaries of Catholic upbringing, including Coppola and Scorsese. “These men have grown up with a sense of sin and a deep-seated feeling that things aren’t going to get much better in this life.” They are compelled to make art that testifies to their experience of America as a country in which “the Protestant work ethic doesn’t seem to have worked out too well.” As an adolescent, De Palma was mesmerized by computers and distinguished himself by winning first place at a science fair. After a brief flirtation with physics at Columbia University, De Palma immersed himself in his other fascination: filmmaking. His very early works, Greetings and Hi Mom!, were satires. But De Palma’s favorite director was Alfred Hitchcock, and in the early ’70s he quickly located the Psychological Thriller a sufficiently lean genre whose economies and conventions invited the sort of expressionistic displays of technique that excited his muse. He recalled the genesis of his interest to Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times:
“I wanted to tell tight, precise stories and suspense and terror sometimes lend themselves to that. I was trying to learn something about film technique. I’ve been influenced by the German Expressionists. I’m very concerned with motivating an audience through imagery. I think I’m one of the few directors working in that area, and a lot still has to be developed there. Visual imagery and sound are essential elements of a film. That’s what makes cinema cinema. Most directors use their cameras as recording instruments and don’t really get to the essential element of form.”
Susan Dworkin, author of Double De Palma—a portrait of Body Double in production—situates De Palma among the “movie brats” and posits one explanation for the difficulty of categorizing works produced by these directors to genres.
“Artistically, De Palma could be placed as one of the “Whiz Kids,” a group of five directors who constituted a central generation in American auteur filmmaking. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma were all friends, connected by old encounters… The Whiz Kids were American spinoffs of the European nouvelle vague of the early 1960s. They had been raised on the notion that the real auteur of a good movie had to be the director. It was originally François Truffaut’s idea, put forth when he was still a film critic and not yet a director himself. The idea was that a director could take a genre movie…and so imbue it with his vision and technique that it would rise above the genre into the sphere of art.”
Jake Horsley, introducing De Palma in The Blood Poets, a sprawling, two-volume analysis of violent contemporary cinema, writes:
“De Palma was actually the first American auteur of the New Hollywood (“the movie brats”) to emerge, but the last to come to prominence (not counting George Lucas, who is hardly an auteur in the true sense). He is also the most gleefully, perversely derivative of them all, and perhaps for this reason the most in tune with the times. De Palma may be the only one of these auteurs—Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg—from whom we might still hope for miracles…”
Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy remains the single most vivid portrait of De Palma at work. She concisely summarizes De Palma’s evolution and the conventional perception of his work. De Palma’s movies were, she writes,
“emotional, operatic films, repeatedly invoking the idea that terror was the only possible response to the cruel and irrational forces that governed the universe… His movies were filled with disturbed families and confused identities. They were filmed with such technical precision that they called attention to the presence of the man behind the camera, whose invisibility protected him from the intense emotions he aroused as he moved his characters through the treacherous, sometimes sadistic world he created on film. His movies were bloody yet oddly poetic, feverish yet carefully planned, full of passion yet distant.
”...Psychologists were intrigued by De Palma’s fascinating with pathology, by the aberrant behavior aroused in characters who find themselves manipulated by others.
“A great many people simply thought that De Palma was a fraud. They argued that he had simply dressed up his woman-hating wickedness so artfully that the intelligentsia didn’t see him for what he was: a perverse misogynist.
“At first De Palma was startled by the attacks, and then invigorated by them. He willingly, sometimes gleefully, went head to head with journalists eager to denounce him for the violence and violent sexuality in his movies. People were almost always thrown off guard when they met the well-spoken graduate of a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence. Articulate and convincing, De Palma could defend himself very well indeed.”
The portrait that has incrementally emerged—not only in Salamon’s exemplary document but in interviews and profiles—is that of a casual—even frumpy—and reserved man who spends money on art and travel but not luxury, appreciates praise but anticipates condemnation, is indulgent with actors but cynical about producers, is impatient with dull questions asked by journalists and, at times, impatient with reasonable questions asked by proponents. De Palma also smokes, has trouble sleeping during production, allays anxiety by means of meticulous planning, and is cool under fire with studio executives—or at very least conceals his anxiety well. His mischievous side manifests when he is under assault; he will occasionally go incognito—vanish from the set or—in the wake of the critical coruscation of Mission to Mars—vanish from the continent. One can draw any number of conclusions from his asceticism, which has been remarked upon by many. Paul Mandell observes in a post-Fury interview:
”[De Palma] lives a relatively normal life far from the madding crowd of Hollywood. Beside a cigarette-littered ashtray on a table in his modestly furnished Fifth Avenue apartment sits a $50 portable typewriter with a piece of paper rolled through the carriage… “I’ve lived in empty places all my life,” I recalled him saying once in an interview. “I don’t care where I live or what I look like.” Mmm. I remembered reading how he spent his high school years designing computers and dreaming of going to the moon. I also remembered reading that he had been disinherited; had worked at a Greenwich Village bistro, the Village Gaslight; and had caught a bullet from the NYPD at the age of 23… The furniture was quite sparse.”
Mandell also quotes De Palma as saying, “I’ve never had an interest in anything material. I’ve always found it difficult to buy things. I’m just very bored by the process of going into a store. In fact it makes me quite uncomfortable.” Jennifer Dunning opens her New York Times profile with a description of an austere, morose De Palma:
“Mr. De Palma was sitting rather glumly across a worktable in his lower Fifth Avenue apartment. Soft rock blared out. But the apartment was nearly bare of furniture. Airy and immaculate, it had almost a monastic look.”
De Palma described himself to Us magazine author Stephen Schaefer in 1978 as “a relatively happy person” who lives alone and whose favorite pastime is “to be alone.” Julie Salamon gives us a flavor for De Palma’s preference for solitude—including a desire not to be bothered, particularly when napping—when she describes his abrupt absences during the filming of Bonfire of the Vanities, typically when he anticipated a confrontation with uneasy studio executives. As he had done on the set of Carrie, he soon began to listen to opera cassettes on his Walkman during filming.
Salamon believes she has located De Palma’s central contradiction: “He wanted to be recognized as an artist by the critical establishment, and he wanted to achieve box office success. Yet his most personal films could never have the mass appeal of more conventional movies.” To complicate matters, the critics who understood and felt possessive of his work resented it when he released films that made money and were appreciated by mainstream audiences.
Wrestling with contradiction
The desire for both artistic legitimacy and commercial success is contradictory in De Palma only because his stated objective is not to be loved but to be “infamous.” He has never aspired to please the many; that many are often not pleased should not surprise De Palma. Yet his behavior in the wake of rejection, even of ferociously antagonistic works like Casualties of War, suggests he is wounded by it—even by rejection that he actively courts, as in the case of Body Double, a film that sought to infuriate skeptics and cultivate new enemies. He appears at times simultaneously to reject and serenade the Hollywood establishment. Armond White explained to interviewer Brett Leitner why he believes De Palma—unlike Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas—is perceived to be an outsider:
“Probably because he takes more risks. I’ve always thought that people don’t really understand De Palma’s movies. I think of him as a popular filmmaker, yet he is not popularly understood. So many people who think he simply rips off Hitchcock don’t understand how many other filmmakers have influenced him. One of those other filmmakers is Godard. And like Godard, De Palma tends to alienate some people because he is so experimental, doing what used to be called ’radical.’ It causes the audience to think about what they’re watching… Because De Palma has that Godardian side to him, that’s the trouble he faces too, even though he works in a popular American medium.”
White, who has interviewed De Palma twice, found the director reluctant to discuss the political, social or metaphorical dimensions of his work.
Pauline Kael became De Palma’s first crucial advocate. She praised films like Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury without guilt and argued that De Palma’s works were more than entertainments; they were not derivative but additive, and were products of an exponentially developing talent. Where other critics saw potential, Kael discerned hallucinatory poetics and wicked satire. It was not just that Kael was pleased by the films—many critics were pleased by Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury—but the way she was pleased, and her persistence and eloquence in stating her case. She was able to situate De Palma in a context that did not diminish his achievements by insinuating that he was merely an understudy to greater, earlier directors. She called his films serious, compared them to works by Godard and Antonioni, and devoted pages and pages to cataloguing their virtues and, when necessary, their deficiencies. Certainly one of the most daring sentences she ever authored appeared in her 1978 review of The Fury, in which she asserted that De Palma had at last directed a movie that surpassed in intensity, vision and number of classic sequences anything directed by Hitchcock. In her defense of De Palma, Kael made adversaries and—in the eyes of the critical establishment—jeopardized her credibility. She was pilloried and even parodied by other critics. But she never backed down.
Armond White would become a force in the U.S. reappraisal of De Palma that followed the release of Snake Eyes. White’s contribution is not blind acceptance of every De Palma work (in fact, he was aghast by French exaltation of Carlito’s Way) but his positioning of De Palma, the modernist, among his post-modernist peers and his recognition of the sensibilities that fuel the director’s vision, not only at the moment the films are released to the world but within the larger context of what White describes as their “dialogue” with the history of cinema. White has on occasion opposed the consensus; he sees Mission: Impossible as a “sell-out,” deducted brownie points from The Untouchables because it pleased mainstream audiences, believes Bonfire of the Vanities is a vastly under-appreciated work of satire, and proclaimed Mission to Mars one of the ten best films of 2000. White is a provocative non-conformist who appears to distrust films that succeed at the box office but is unflinchingly consistent in locating aesthetic organization and passages of astounding beauty even in De Palma’s less experimental, widely accepted works. White believes hostility towards De Palma is a conditioned response to movies that have artistic rather than escapist aspirations. When interviewed by Brett Leitner, White asserted:
”[Critics] want to deny the truth and drift off into total escapism… That’s why they can’t see De Palma for anything other than a Hitchcock imitator. Some people think the world begins and ends with Hollywood formula; they aren’t aware of art, they aren’t aware of the modernist movement. But I think that’s almost willful. I mean, he’s been making movies for over thirty years and they still deny his seriousness. But it’s worse than that, it’s a willful commitment to the Hollywood idea of ’escapism is everything.’”
White attributes historical resistance to De Palma to a fear of filmic sensuality, invoking a phenomenon that Kael theorized in her essay, “Fear of Movies.”
”[De Palma] disturbs them in a way that a facetious and parodical filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino never can, because there isn’t really much style to respond to in Tarantino. Minimal style is OK with a lot of people, so they don’t want to respond to De Palma’s camera movement or his style of editing. They don’t even want to feel it. I think that’s part of Pauline Kael’s notion, that the ’fear of movies’ for some people is a culturally induced thing, almost related to peoples’ sexual response. Movies are very kinetic and can be a sensual art form and some people are just afraid to feel those things.”
White believes that critical and popular perception of De Palma is in transition and that reappraisal of his work is inevitable. For White, “the tide has turned. [We] have to make it happen. Critical responses are the result of critics. We need a new generation of critics, because after a while opinions and attitudes become a matter of inherited hostility rather than individuals watching movies for themselves. Think about Godard’s career. His reputation is still in dispute, yet he is crucial to film culture… [De Palma] may always be in dispute. And that’s OK!”
Many critics now concede that films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible did overcome the contradiction Salamon described by achieving both artistic and commercial success. But there has never been the unanimity in the critical community that is so predictably engendered by the works of a Scorsese or Spielberg. The charge, by De Palma’s advocates, is that he has not been taken seriously by critics simply because his works are so controversial that even to contemplate their significance is to risk ridicule. In the preamble to his interview with Armond White, Brett Leitner writes, “Few critics have dared to make public a respect for De Palma, and fewer still have bothered to explore the significance of his talent.”
Influences and accusations
As for De Palma’s appropriation of Hitchcock’s techniques, De Palma admits how deeply influenced he is by Hitchcock as well as other filmmakers. Critics versed in film history note not just one but a gamut of influences, including Orson Welles, Scorsese, Cassavetes and Kubrick. Although some dismiss any notion of a Kubrick influence on De Palma, he has invoked Kubrick frequently, as far back as 1975, and revisited Kubrick’s satires when conceptualizing Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma has wisely left it to critics to determine whether he has surpassed his mentors or not—and some important critics believe he has realized Hitchcock’s promise by transcending its strictures and introducing important social themes—and even taboo—to the paradigm. On the matter of De Palma’s debt to Hitchcock, Jake Horsley writes:
“De Palma does not copy Hitchcock, he follows him, and his films (specifically Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and, to a much lesser extent, Obsession, Body Double, and Raising Cain) are not imitation Hitchcocks, they are rather authentic and ingenious developments of the same themes that once obsessed Hitchcock… De Palma took the threads that Hitchcock laid, and then ran with them, in the process creating a whole new tapestry, and his audacity helped to resurrect the old horrors within new forms in the American cinema.”
Another recurring allegation is that early De Palma’s works are inherently misogynist. Feminist objection to Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double left a taint that persists. More recently the charge was leveled against Casualties of War. Perhaps helping his cause, but likely not, De Palma discussed with critic Michael Bliss the aesthetic reasons he places women in mortal jeopardy:
“You try to deal with things that an audience can identify with on a visceral level and I feel that’s what they can identify with to some extent. People say, “Why do women get slashed in his films, what does he have against women?” I just think that when women are in a perilous situation, audiences identify with them more than men because they look more helpless.”
De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, sees internal contradiction as what differentiates De Palma’s work from that of his contemporaries and, even, from those works to which De Palma’s suspense films are frequently compared. Leach told author Susan Dworkin: “I can still tell Brian’s work in a minute. His work is the work of a rational, thoughtful, intellectual person who stands outside things—and who, in fact, is the opposite of that, whose passions run deep, whose sense of outrage is limitless.”
There is ample contradiction in De Palma; a filmmaker who admires and borrows from Hitchcock yet grows weary of having critics acknowledge this debt; a director who loves his female characters—often speaks through his females—yet situates their demise, often at the hands of vindictive psychopaths and disturbed voyeurs, as central to his art; a director who is simultaneously nonchalant about assertions his blockbusters are “sell-outs” and defensive of the charge because it insinuates artistic compromise; a director who at times seems to welcome and spar with detractors yet, in some instances, has cancelled publicity tours in the wake of critical excoriation. Finally, De Palma is a director who until 1985 wanted to offend the sensibilities but expressed disappointment when his films were denounced as offensive—perhaps because they were not attacked on their own terms but marginalized by a process of comparison (“Hitchcock”) and reductionism (“satire”).
Beauty in the grotesque
De Palma has, like Kubrick, Lynch and Fincher, sought to master the intersection of mesmerizing beauty and grotesque horror while legitimizing and freeing encumbered and stigmatized genres. His films are intensely curious—curious about the human psyche, as well as the cyclic patterns and inherent nature of quotidian existence. They explore cycles of self-preservation, implosion, virtue, vice and avarice. They hunger for the cosmic meaning of suffering. They explore the nature of mistakes and substitute obsolete myths about America with more fortifying and truthful myths. Where De Palma deviates from his contemporaries is that he situates intellect, intuition and social strategy as higher than emotion or pure altruism on the hierarchy of evolutionary tools. His most realized protagonists are patient Watchers who observe and deliberate before using reason, psychology and technology to smash through deception. De Palma does not attach any special premium to the emotional synthesis of crisis. His most successful characters are resourceful, methodical and disciplined. In instances where they are manipulated and exploited, it is often a consequence of inattentiveness or existential resignation.
De Palma’s characters are almost universally motivated by dualistic drives; they are multidimensional in their objectives and paradoxical in their desires. They seek transcendence, but how they go about this is dependent upon frequently contradictory considerations. Grace Collier in Sisters attempts to parlay the private anguish of a neighbor into professional credibility but soon becomes sidetracked by her fervor to feed a deeper psychological need. Jake Scully in Body Double is motivated by the paradoxical demons of prurient desire and a shamed conscience. In Blow Out, regret disguised as altruistic idealism manifests as Jack Terry’s compulsion to resurrect his accomplice, Sally Bedina, in his own image. Tony Montana’s every step closer to a forgery of the American Dream is undermined by proportionate estrangement from his own soul and bitter alienation from the sister whose idolatry inspires his voracity for success. In Casualties of War, Private Eriksson’s impulse to intervene on behalf of a brutalized civilian collides with the obstacle of rational self-preservation in a universe where hierarchy and moral order are eviscerated by primitive impulse and collective psychosis. In Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt’s fixation on the mastery of obstacles and restoration of order to chaos is tainted by an erotic desire that may or may not constitute the betrayal of a betraying mentor. In Femme Fatale, De Palma documents the internal struggle of a female protagonist as she deliberates whether to accept or reject an archetype so powerful that it has the potential to emancipate or destroy her. Yet, even these thumbnail descriptions seem insufficient to convey the forces that toss De Palma’s creations around the existential abyss. In film after film, De Palma situates a divide between private aspirations and the intrinsic need to be—and to be perceived by others as—decent and evolving towards a perfected and sovereign self.
The films propound a hydraulic, incessant and fastidious linkage of cause to effect that challenges the notion of reality as arbitrary and unfathomable. Non-virtue yields poor results and good causes yield better results but often his heroes do not triumph in any traditional sense. They do, however, embody the realm of free choice and pure action. Everything they do matters. They do good, or they do bad, they leave an imprint on the society in which they struggle, and they always suffer. Despair can, in De Palma’s world, be the redemptive result of a magnificent act of moral courage. Good intentions can reap catastrophe. A deadly mistake is repeated by an intelligent man with an honorable aspiration. This is a much more clear-headed and less nostalgic cognition of the world in which we live—but De Palma gives it to us not as realism but allegory that, in its way, exalts the travails of life and transforms painful experience into art. There is glory to be found even in the stories of his most malignant characters. They are larger than life, and they believe they are free. Even when his narratives are phantasmagoric, they convey something utterly true. Through abstraction, and by the sheer fascination and novelty of their journeys towards redemption or collapse, they affirm the spiritual journey that culminates in self-comprehension and autonomy.
De Palma’s films are not warm and fuzzy. They issue ultimatums, cultivate disenchantment, and violate narratological edicts. Their heroes reap weariness and disappointment. He creates universes that penalize good intentions, sometimes reward intellect, and dangle temptation before the weak and ambivalent. His consistent mixture of beauty with violence is his signature. His Darwinian films, which champion ascendancy over evil and entrenched corruption by means of superior tools of adaptability, intellect, intuition and reason, have a taint of elitism because they deviate from classicist and popular exemplars that argue being good is enough. In De Palma’s universe being good is a virtue but is no guarantee of survival. His natural selection tends to favor taciturn exotics who do not react but rather choose a response. His cinema is not always a cinema of transformation. De Palma does not blindly accept the mantra that great drama must be about radical change; the challenge for some of his protagonists is to resist an onslaught. Eliott Ness and Private Eriksson, for example, are characterized by their defiance; they refuse to change, compromise or submit to an invitation to corruption.
De Palma is fascinated by contradictions within motive. The nightmare at the conclusion of Dressed to Kill hints that even the use of manipulation for a virtuous purpose—to expose a killer—leaves its user with a penetrating sense of guilt. In Body Double a questionable and frivolous obsession leads a man to solve a murder made possible only by his predictability. De Palma’s best films behave like self-replicating Von Neumann machines: They are so highly stylized, self-assured, and unrelenting that they create the impression that they are intelligent life forms. They ask, but only partially answer, the questions they raise about what it means to live in the modern world.
Clear perception is the religion of De Palma’s most intricate protagonists; Gillian in The Fury; Jack Terry in Blow Out, Eliott Ness in The Untouchables; Private Eriksson in Casualties of War, and Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible. Intuition, which De Palma distinguishes from emotion and intellect, is not a means to an end but a lifeline. Gillian doesn’t use clairvoyance; she embodies clairvoyance as a metaphor for sovereignty and the synthesis of truth. Peter Miller’s preoccupation is surveillance. Jack Terry’s is sound and, like Rick Santoro’s in Snake Eyes, visual-sequential reconstruction. Ethan relies on logic and photographic memory. These skills define the character who possesses them while functioning simultaneously as tools to master the indecipherable.
A universe of graceful suffering
De Palma is one of our most important and prolific living American directors. He has produced one of the most obstinate and unpredictable bodies of work in history. The prodigality, diversity and controversy of the oeuvre has frightened scholars away from pursuing meta-theories that explain De Palma’s output as a unified whole. To complicate matters, like Godard, De Palma’s films not only entertain and ruminate on the human condition but constitute a critique of contemporary cinema. Yet De Palma is every bit as consistent as Scorsese, as subversive as Lynch, and as cerebral and bemused by human nature as Kubrick. Like Scorsese, he excavates the same themes repeatedly, often to augment or recalibrate a schema he has rethought. Dworkin, with the help of De Palma’s mentor, explains the rationale behind repetition.
“Wilford Leach said that Brian’s movies were like the circling of the planets. Around and around the artist went, a lifelong 360-degree pan, and what he saw on one revolution would be better lit on the next or in total darkness the next time around. With each revolution, there was a further revelation, but the universe of Brian’s material remained basically the same.
De Palma’s work testifies to an ongoing process of reinvention. He continues to transfigure obsolete, dishonest and meaningless myths for emerging generations that crave their renovation. His stories are infused with life; those moved by them receive the twin gifts of inspiration and curiosity. His films help us to experience the world more intensely, and to bear with grace, intelligence and courage the suffering of being human.
Michael Crowley is a graduate of the Cinema/Television School at the University of Southern California. He held a miscellany of film-related internships and jobs (can you say gopher?) before working as a writer and screenwriter for about ten years. His non-fiction has appeared online and in magazines, including American Cinematographer. In 2000 he collaborated with Robert H. Smith on the non-fiction book Dead Bank Walking: One Gutsy Bank and the Merger that Changed Banking Forever. He is currently writing a novel and serving as executive producer for an independent feature—a ghost story—entitled Spectres. Mike lives in Payson, Arizona, where he is co-owner of a family-run investment management firm.