DVD: De Palma | reviews, news & interviews
DVD: De Palma
DVD: De Palma
We take a long look at the lurid, brilliant Movie Brat
When Carrie White’s hand jumps out of the grave to drag Amy Irving’s character to hell, the shock is Psycho-intense. Carrie’s director Brian De Palma had, though, put equal care into the seconds preceding it, as Irving leaves the house to a score signalling calm after the film’s convulsive climax. He had Irving exit backwards, and when the footage was reversed to seem normal, a distant car now drove the wrong way. Wrongness was buried in the frame, the camera readying your subconscious for terror.
Among the Movie Brats who marvellously came of age in the Seventies, and are now mostly in their seventies – Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas – De Palma, pictured below filming Scarface, is still the sensational, lurid outsider. His few big hits in a prolific career – Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), The Untouchables (1987), Mission: Impossible (1996) – were unstable one-offs, interspersed with wild darts towards the seedy (Body Double) and wacky (Wise Guys), or failed grasps for profundity and respect (Casualties of War, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Redacted). It has been a chaotic, Jeckyll-and-Hyde professional journey. But De Palma’s enraptured relationship with the camera has remained faithful.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary, De Palma, begins with that affair’s primal scene, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, watched by 18-year-old Brian on its 1958 release. He remembers it as both magically transfixing and hermetically cinematic: a film about the director’s spell, and the violent impulses that can contain, as James Stewart and Kim Novak’s characters are devastated by Hitchcock.
De Palma now likes to think of himself as “the last practitioner of Hitchcock’s language”. He wasn’t alone in the Seventies, with films such as Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace (1979) almost equalling De Palma’s reputation-making homages Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976) in updating Hitch’s fatalistic grip, while his near-peer Spielberg retained the knack when a child skips towards a time-bomb in Munich (2005). De Palma is now unique in the monomaniac complexity and sadistic success of his set-pieces, often using split-screen to ramp up the Rear Window-riffing, helpless voyeurism as murder or mayhem plays out.
He presents this as a dispassionate exercise. “I did grow up in an operating room,” this surgeon’s son notes of his blood-drenched cinema. He’s “a big-brain, science kind of guy”, one of his actors, Gregg Henry, has noted; his schoolboy science projects were brilliant, and on-set he can be coldly uncommunicative, so precise in his plans that nothing more need be said. With the aid of romantically passionate composers such as Bernard Hermann and Pino Donaggio, scenes such as Carrie’s pig-blood-drenched Prom Night, Pacino’s flight from fellow gangsters through the New York subway in Carlito’s Way, the shoot-out around a pram’s Odessa Steps-style descent in The Untouchables, or Tom Cruise catching his own sweat-drop above a motion-sensitive vault’s floor in Mission: Impossible, then often become thunderously, operatically intense.
De Palma also takes tantalising inventory of the fact that Carrie was the director’s tenth film. His career began in the Sixties underground, with an initially chubby, crew-cut, charismatic young Bobby De Niro, pictured above right in The Wedding Party, as his star of choice, before Scorsese got him. De Palma’s early, funny ones, micro-budget, anti-Establishment and anarchic in the era of the Vietnam draft, help explain his scattershot, unsatisfied Hollywood career (he now works in France). The comedies’ glee with newly possible nudity continued into his thrillers, in which women have been stalked, slashed and drilled while, for Body Double, he outraged Hollywood’s caste system by test-screening a porn star. He still dismisses feminism as “the critical fashion of the day”, declaring once again here, unabashed: “I love photographing women…I love to follow them.”
De Palma began as an informal record of the entertaining Hollywood yarns its subject told his younger director friends Baumbach and Paltrow, which they catch for posterity with an ironically static camera. His relaxed relish makes a change from his usual social discomfort, caught by Julie Salamon in her book on The Bonfire of the Vanities’ disastrous making, The Devil’s Candy: “When he remembered to be polite, the words sounded awkward, as though he were lip-synching phrases from a foreign language.” Though self-deprecating in tone, the documentary’s unchallenged stories settle scores, and mostly prove him right.
There are different insights in the short interview with a favourite actor, John Lithgow, pictured above, in the Extras of the recent DVD of De Palma’s ultra-Hitchockian, Oedipal Raising Cain. “Down deep, the spine of all his stories is real, almost Bergmanesque neurosis,” Lithgow, who is from a similar elite, intellectual background, observes. “He took his own obsessions, and put them all to work in his storytelling.” In one late, little-seen film, De Palma adapted James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. His own Fifties upbringing in a neurotically dysfunctional household, with a dominant, unfaithful father he stalked with a camera and threatened with a knife while his dad’s mistress cowered - briefly glossed in De Palma – is not so unlike the manic, haunted Ellroy. Hitchcock gave him the tools to purge and confess, to slash women and mourn, to kill and cure. With a surgeon’s steely control of his camera, he secretly let it all out.
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