CC2K

The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Is it OK to like Brian De Palma?

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer


Part 1: Intro to Brianology 

De Palma, Spielberg, and Scorsese enjoy the high-life

afforded them by their Magic Directing Beards.

 

If filmmakers are food, this would be a partial menu at the video store:

 

Jerry Bruckheimer – Big Mac

Jim Jarmusch – sushi

Jean-Luc Godard – wheat germ

Neil Labute – salmonella

Antonioni – cauliflower

Wes Anderson – wedding cake

Guy Maddin – piece of cake from Leni Riefenstahl?s wedding preserved in formaldehyde

Oliver Stone – the entire contents of your refrigerator

Guy Ritchie – Snickers

Takashi Miike – vomit soup

Sam Peckimpah – baked beans

Terry Gilliam – absinthe

Steven Spielberg – Thanksgiving dinner

Woody Allen (early) – Pixie sticks

Woody Allen (middle) – Reuben sandwich

Woody Allen (late) – Shit sandwich
Cameron Crowe – potato salad

Quentin Tarantino – Cocoa Puffs sprinkled with crack

 

Brian De Palma – take-out Chinese

It's easy to admit you really don?t enjoy Jean-Luc Godard, even though you know you're supposed to: you know wheat germ is good for you, and what?s the fun in eating something you know is good for yout? But what about Brian De Palma? He?s Chinese take-out slathered in MSG, something that tastes like the greatest meal you?ve ever eaten when you take your first greedy bites, but ends up making you sick and fat by the end. De Palma is the guilty pleasure it?s okay to like. Here is the general party line on him among hipper critics: He makes trashy movies, but he does it with an aesthete?s detachment. He?s only interested in ?pure cinema,? and he?s at best indifferent to all the other elements needed to get a feature film financed (plot, characterization, arc).

In theory I love Brian De Palma. Nothing gives me more pleasure than arguing for Style over Substance against some old curmudgeon. But I don?t like him. Not really. Aside from the occasional enjoyment of one of his patented ?pure cinema? sequences, I could take him or leave him. This brings up a lot of issues for the cinephile: What happens when you KNOW you should like a certain artist, but just don?t?

 

This usually happens when what they do–the whole point to their work–is something you 100% agree with intellectually. William Faulkner is this way for me when it comes to books. I love stream-of-consciousness, total subjectivity kind of writing. It strikes me as one of the most amazing, peculiar things that writing can do, and the shock of recognition at seeing your own thinking patterns replicated right there on the page in front of you is a hell of a kick. I believe that Nicholson Baker?s ?The Mezzanine? is literally one of the greatest things ever written by a human being. Therefore, I should love Faulkner, right? Then why can?t I read more than two pages of ?As I Lay Dying? or ?The Sound and the Fury? without wanting to reach behind my eyeballs and start tearing out chunks of my brain? The same goes for Godard in film. I love it when an artist completely breaks the rules of the fictional world he?s created for no good reason other than the sense of play it creates in destroying a beautiful form, and this is what Godard does all the time. This was his great ?innovation.? But his movies are just so fucking boring I can barely stand it. At no point do I not feel like I?m taking my artistic medicine, eating my wheat germ, and take satisfaction that this film is ?good? for me. I always feel somehow deficient because of this.  

Another thing I love in art is when an artist is ridiculously talented, and so should therefore go around making what?s considered ?tasteful? art by tasteful people, but instead just fucks around all the time. I guess you?d call this the ?slacker? aesthetic. David Foster Wallace is possibly the smartest writer on the planet, but the man can?t resist making intricately-constructed, brilliant explorations of the minds of people who smoke way too much weed and masturbate all day long. Pavement created one of the most amazing careers in rock music out of doing nothing but this. The basic slacker mentality is that the whole hypocrisy of working a shitty, soul-destroying job all day long to buy SUVs and save up for your retirement is bogus, so you might as well spend all of our considerable brainpower making fun of bad TV and movies. This pretty much describes me and most of my friends, so I guess that means we?re slackers, and I guess it shouldn?t be any surprise that I really enjoy seeing an artist who seems like a kindred soul.

So by this rationale I should love Brian De Palma. According to Conventional Wisdom, the man?s a

-master of suspense

-genius visual director

-brilliant architect of ?pure cinema? sequences

Who nevertheless spends all his time working in the gutters of genre films, wasting his time on slasher films, T & A vehicles, and gaudy gangster pictures far below a man of his talents. Which is the perfect recipe for slacker brilliance. He sloughs off having to put the time in to come up with a suitably ?artsy? scenario, and instead picks up whatever ready-made genre forms are lying around and uses them as an excuse to fuck around with a camera.  

I think that my problem with de Palma is that he?s like that slacker friend who?s negligence on the job alarms even your already low standards. He sends instant messages and surfs the internet all day long at work, just like you, but he happens to be a homicide investigator who?s slacking off on the job has harsh, real-life consequences for real people. De Palma?s shirking of responsibility to his movies beyond his one or two pet set-pieces often leads to some alarmingly tacky, embarrassing moments that are just too hackish to ignore. I can think of no better example than Carlito?s Way , up to now my favorite De Palma film. Here are two scenes that are textbook De Palma. The first one shows him at his Master-of-the-Macabre best, the second at his schlockmeister worst.  

Scene one: The Drug Deal

Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), has just gotten out of prison. His young, reckless nephew is giving him a ride over to dinner with some relatives. His cousin asks him a favor: Will Carlito, a former street heavy, accompany him on a $20,000, errand-boy drug deal to lend him some street cred? Carlito really can't say no without insulting his nephew, so he agrees to come along. Carlito and nephew show up in a back room where shady drug dealer-type guys are shooting pool to transact the seemingly simple, workaday deal. But as Carlito watches his nephew work the deal, his street instincts kick in, and he starts to pick up on some subconscious cues that once made Carlito so good as a criminal. Nothing explicit happens, everybody acts cool, but De Palma's shots of Carlito's face and his cutaways to what he's looking at build up this unbelievable tension. You could give the scripting of that scene to every other working director in the world, and no one would have been able to build up the tension as subtly and effectively as De Palma does. It?s animal intuition up there on-screen; you can?t quite put your finger on what?s wrong, but an itch at the back of your neck tells you something?s off. He has the intuitive feeling for the pacing of his shots, for eyelines, for cutaways, for the way a scene breathes that is almost musical. It's what De Palma excels at: he's called (himself) the heir to Hitchcock, and this scene masterfully exhibits his abilities to construct these tense scene-long mini-masterpieces.

I've never systematically worked through the de Palma filmography. I've pretty much just seen his Big movies, but I do remember these scenes from them:

-The shootout in the train station in The Untouchables .

-Stealing the computer disc in the all-white secure room in Mission Impossible .

-Stealing the all-gold dress off the model in Femme Fatale.

-The infamous chain saw/bathtub scene in Scarface .

-The aforementioned drug deal scene in Carlito's Way , along with the Boat Scene and the Train Chase sequence.

 

De Palma lives up to his reputation for perfectionism by delaying filming yet again to get Tom Cruise's biceps glistening at an acceptable level.
 

These scenes play to all his strengths, and they are considerable. Unfortunately, so are his weaknesses.  

Here's another scene from Carlito's Way , which perfectly illustrate them:  

Scene Two: The Love Scene

Carlito knocks on the door of the uninteresting, chemistry-free Love Interest who has no other function beyond the inevitable Hot Chick the hero gets to fuck and who Raises the Stakes for his descent back into crime. The scene starts off well: She opens the door but leaves the chain on, and tells Carlito that if he wants her, he'll have to break in and get her. She then walks away and takes off her shirt. So far, so good. Great metaphor for the Contract of Seduction between men and women: She gives the illusion that she wants the man to break in and just take her by force, but it's all arranged by her and she gives her explicit consent that she wants this to happen.  

And Carlito does break through the door. De Palma could've ended the scene here. He should've ended the scene here. The Love Scene satisfies the formula the genre demands it follow, and the audience can get back to another Tension Sequence. He fulfilled his duty admirably. But he lets the love scene play on. And what song comes over the soundtrack during the Love Scene Montage?  

?You Are So Beautiful.?  

As performed by Michael Bolton.  

Holy shit.

Author: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

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