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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT
The death-deifying De Palma
Brian De Palma's never-say-die brio.
By Peter Rainer, Special to The Times
"Nothing stays buried forever," says a cop in the new Brian De Palma thriller "The Black Dahlia." This basic rule of homicide investigation also applies to De Palma's career. One of his very first movies was called "Murder à la Mod," and the murders have continued almost unabated ever since. So have the exhumations.
In De Palma's House of Pain, corpses have a way of springing back to life, if only in fever dreams. In "Carrie," Sissy Spacek's blood-soaked prom queen exerts her revenge from beyond the grave — or, to be more exact, from inside it. At the end of "Blow Out," Nancy Allen's throttled death scream, recorded on a surveillance tape, pulls apart the psyche of the man who failed to save her, a sound recordist for cheapie horror movies played by John Travolta. At the end of "Casualties of War," a slaughtered Vietnamese girl, or her look-alike, beckons Michael J. Fox's Pfc. Eriksson, the man who failed to save her. In movie after movie, De Palma keeps returning to the scene of the crime — he digs up his obsessions and buries them and hauls them up again.
For all that, the dread he parlays has never quite devolved into shtick because, even in a film as roundly slammed and wildly unsatisfactory as "The Black Dahlia," there are moments when his ecstatic love of filmmaking comes through. But his ardor can be a mixed blessing. De Palma's technique alone can hold you, but sometimes we must ask: Technique in the service of what?
In the mid-'80s he said in an interview, "I don't start with an idea about content. I start with a visual image." In the same interview he said, "I'm interested in motion, sometimes violent motions, because they work aesthetically in film."
But surely this patter about pure cinema is a decoy. A sports film, for example, offers abundant opportunities for dynamic movement, and yet De Palma has never attempted one of those. As a rule, things really get rolling for him when his camera tracks are slicked with fresh blood. The fact that the blood most often belongs to women, who are perceived as prey, or that sex is often the lure for violence in his films, fouls the air.
THE WAGES OF SIN
In "Dressed to Kill," probably his most controversial movie, an unhappily married woman played by Angie Dickinson has a hot tryst with a dark stranger and gets sliced to death in an elevator for her troubles. The camerawork throughout all this is — no other word for it — gorgeous. It's an emblematic sequence for De Palma and the sickest of jokes: Sex, even good sex, can only end badly.
Despite the super-sophistication of his technique, in essence De Palma's movies express, at least for men in the audience, how sex was experienced as an adolescent. An early adolescent. They capture the rage and mortification, the guilt, the tingle of voyeurism. In "Carrie," the slo-mo glide through the girls' locker room that opens the movie is every boy's porno fantasia.
One of the most unnerving things about De Palma's films, even more than their eruptive, gargoyle terror, is the suggestion that these adolescent anxieties are naggingly ever-present. The tyranny of sexual desire, woman as the Other — for most men, these fears still fly. And because De Palma came of age as an artist in a consciousness-raising era when the women's movement was in full swing, he has always been the whipping boy of those who flaunt their liberal bona fides. It was predictable that "Femme Fatale," his most recent movie before "The Black Dahlia," would be cheered by his detractors, many of whom believe he is the ungodly creation of his greatest champion, Pauline Kael. Aside from being his best movie in years, it also showcased a rare species for De Palma — the sexually in-control female hero, the pansexual praying mantis.
Equally unnerving in his movies is the cackle often underscoring the terrors. In a De Palma movie, the worst-possible-case scenario is almost always the only scenario, and there's a kind of ghastly comic justice in that. Carrie isn't just humiliated at her prom, she's doused in pig's blood. In return, she incinerates her classmates.
In one of his early, revue-sketch movies, "Hi, Mom!," De Palma stages a sequence that, for sheer satiric audacity, is unmatched by anything else of that era. A gaggle of white, liberal, middle-class theatergoers attend an off-off-Broadway happening called "Be Black Baby" in which African American militants, in white face, darken the audience members' faces and proceed to school them in what it's like to be black. They're terrorized, brutalized; there's even a rape. When it's all over, the dazed but grateful playgoers give the evening high marks. "It really makes you stop and think," says one.
In his early prime, De Palma was singled out for opprobrium, it seemed, because he did extremely well what the schlock horror-meisters, with their scantily clad victims and bogie men, did badly. He was also, as the draft-dodger comedy "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom!" and the rock-horror jape "Phantom of the Paradise" showed, closer to the Zap Comix ethos than is generally recognized: Like R. Crumb, with his pageant of brazen racial and sexual stereotypes, De Palma was unapologetically upfront about the lurid inappropriateness of his fantasy life.
Unlike Crumb, he doesn't always make it clear if he is "commenting" on those gonzo stereotypes or buying into them. Probably a little of both. But he is a much more calculating artist than Crumb, who is so entranced by his own perversities that he can't quite imagine anyone being shocked by them. De Palma, by contrast, always has his public in mind. The diabolical streak in his thrillers comes from the fact that he is not as shocked as we are about what he is showing us. And boy, does he want us to know it.
And yet there is much more to De Palma than puppet-mastery, just as there was with Hitchcock, who suffered a similar criticism. The adverse comparisons to Hitchcock have for the most part been unfair. While it's true that the distinction between rip-off and homage is sometimes stretched a bit thin in De Palma's films — "Body Double," that bargain-bin "Rear Window," comes to mind — the whole feeling tone of his movies is much more voluptuous and surreal and malign. With Hitchcock, no matter how garish he gets, even in "Psycho," we are still in the hands of someone who regards the murder genre as a bad-mannered branch of British etiquette. The horror thriller for him represents an aesthetic conundrum to be worked out.
De Palma's thrillers, at least as a point of origin, are more temperamentally aligned with cheapo exploitation pictures and pulp fiction. His effrontery is that he can, sometimes, as in "Carrie" or "The Fury," make art from dross.
What happens to De Palma in these films is similar to what happens to Hitchcock in a film such as "Vertigo." The scaffolding of plot and logic fall away and the movie seems to slide into a fugue state. It becomes almost suffocatingly personal. The real point of comparison between Hitchcock and De Palma may be this: The extreme rigor of their technique masks a deep derangement.
De Palma's movies are best when they spook him too — when they inhabit his private places. He can turn out a highly slick entertainment like "Scarface," "The Untouchables" or "Carlito's Way" and you can sit back and enjoy it without once believing that it means much of anything to the director. (It must tickle the creator of "Be Black Baby" to know that "Scarface" has become a gangsta touchstone.)
"Blow Out," often regarded as his masterpiece, is marred by an overreliance on penny dreadful plot twists once John Lithgow's bull goose loony appears on the scene. But it's still amazing. Of all De Palma's movies, it's the one that cuts closest to the bone. Travolta's performance may be a big reason why. Playing the sound effects technician who accidentally witnesses a political assassination and can't save the girl he loves from its annihilating consequences, he is atrociously responsive to De Palma's torment. De Palma's movies are often riddled with dualities and doppelgangers, but in "Blow Out" it is Travolta and De Palma who are in deep communion.
Filmed in his hometown of Philadelphia, the movie released something intensely private in him. The murders are often shot from very high up, from a vulture's perspective, as if to anatomize the obscenity. De Palma was a teenage physics whiz and several of his movies, especially "Dressed to Kill," feature geeky boy geniuses. Piecing together the truth of the assassination from bits of sound and picture, Travolta's Jack is a kind of scientist too, but the upshot of the movie is that in the end science can't help you. The irrational will always trump the rational.
HEART OF DARKNESS
Some of the most powerful, and powerfully violent, American movies ever made — such as "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Godfather" films and "The Wild Bunch" — are personally felt on a very deep level and yet also seem to have a large purchase on the zeitgeist. They express a national mood. De Palma's films are not like that. (Neither are the films of David Lynch, another fabulist of his own innerscape.) Even "Casualties of War," which is based on the true account of the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by an American patrol, is less a movie about that war than it is a grand-scale reenactment of De Palma's recurring nightmare — the torture of not being able to rescue a loved one. The scene in which the girl is torn from her family for a little "portable R & R" is the most powerful sequence he has ever shot because for once there is nothing standing between us and the horror, no cackles, no sleight of hand, no baroque frissons.
I do not mean to slight those ingredients. Back in 1978, coming off "Carrie" and "The Fury," De Palma said that "I imagine that in the next 10 or 20 years I'll start moving into more intellectually complicated things." In fact, those films were plenty complicated; the insistently Catholic sense of dread in "Carrie," with its almost hallucinatory imaginings of the wages of sin, is far more complex than most of what passes in the movies for "intellectual." One reason that the arbiters of critical taste have not always given De Palma his due as an artist is because he has worked predominantly in disreputable genres.
But there is a case to made against De Palma for other reasons. His apprehension of the night doesn't allow much daylight to seep through. If Steven Spielberg, in his "E.T" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" days, was our chief purveyor of transcendental goodness, De Palma's MO has been almost unrelentingly Manichean, with the dark side hogging all the glory. (Be black baby, indeed.) As "The Black Dahlia" makes clear, a complacency has worked its way into De Palma's heart of darkness. The movie seems anesthetized by its own aura of menace.
Six years ago De Palma made "Mission to Mars," which alone among his films is supernally hopeful and was almost universally panned. Were the critics maybe expecting "Invaders From Mars"? Making his way in Hollywood through four decades, De Palma has had to try for the big score just like everybody else. "Mission: Impossible" was his penance for the debacle of "Bonfire of the Vanities," and "The Black Dahlia" looks like an attempt to revive the De Palma brand. Compared to the overheated gore-o-ramas of David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino, his two most conspicuous acolytes, De Palma seems almost like a classic now. He's imprisoned by his own legend, but I'm betting he has the Houdini moves to escape and astonish us — astonish himself — once again. For a director who prizes resurrections, that would be the neatest trick of all.
Rainier is film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and DVD critic for Bloomberg News.
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