Nov 11, 2019

De Palma

Unlike superlatively soulless anti-poets-cum-pop-artists like Quentin Tarantino and prosaically pretentious pseudo-arthouse posers like Darren Aronofsky, who I will always loathe with an unrivaled passion, Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill, Scarface)—a virtual deracinated wop Hitchcock, albeit even more materialistic and pathologically-inclined—is a filmmaker that I used to really, really hate but have somewhat warmed up to over the years, in part because I look at him and his oeuvre from a quite different perspective than when I initially judged his work. Indeed, when comparing De Palma to great cinematic artists like Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer or truly subversive auteurs like Fassbinder and Pasolini, his films seem like shallow exercises in masturbatory technical aptitude and excess-ridden escapism, but when one looks at him like his hero Alfred Hitchcock (who, not surprisingly, came from an engineering background that involved, “mechanics, electricity, acoustics, and navigation”) as a sort of hyper rational scientific and mathematical-minded nerd of sorts as opposed to an intuitive artist or poet (in fact, De Palma first studied Physics, Math, and Russian in college), his films can be appreciated as sort of insanely immaculately stylized sleaze and the masterful expressions of a corpse-cold megalomaniacal mind; or, in short, the diseased Faustian male mind of modernity. In short, De Palma is a sort of ‘tyrannical technical auteur’ with the virtual mind of an Aspergery surgeon (which was his much resented father’s trade) that somewhat curiously got involved in the art of cinema, yet an auteur nonetheless as his entire body of work is riddled with the same obsessive themes/tropes (e.g. perverted voyeurs, slutty/bitchy blondes, antisocial antiheroes, political conspiracy/corruption, etc.) that one would expect from an artist with his own distinct Weltanschauung

 While De Palma still makes films, he is clearly well past his prime and has now become, not unlike his American New Wave/New Hollywood buddies like Peter Bogdanovich and especially Martin Scorsese, a sort of prematurely enshrined cinematic hero and legend among young filmmakers that fetishize that era (without question, out of all the modern young filmmakers that are obsessed with this period, Paul Thomas Anderson, who is like the cinematic broad of Hal Ashby and Robert Altman, has been the most successful in in terms of capturing its spirit). Undoubtedly, probably the greatest example of this new De Palma hero worship is the hardly-popular documentary De Palma (2015) co-directed by fellow mischling filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow where the eponymous auteur gets in virtual VH1 Behind the Music mode and summarizes his entire career in a fairly candid and vaguely personalized fashion that emphasizes his professional highs and lows (yet mostly ignores his failed marriages, children, etc.). Just as Bogdanovich once did the same by promoting the work of older cinematic heroes like Orson Welles and John Ford, Baumbach followed in this tradition by not only producing the De Palma doc but also co-producing (with fellow exceedingly emasculated hipster humorist Wes Anderson) the mostly mediocre screwball comedy She's Funny That Way (2014). Rather unfortunately, quite unlike Bogdanovich, who certainly paid his dues in terms of cinematic research, these younger hipster filmmakers seem to be way less literate and cultivated than their filmic forefathers so instead of getting something like the classic film text Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966) by François Truffaut (which, incidentally, acted as the subject of a 2015 documentary of the same name directed by Kent Jones), we get a sort of less involved documentary equivalent where the filmmaker is never seriously challenged but instead offers a mostly chronological summary of his failures and successes while (rightly) condemning the corrupt industry that oftentimes failed him as a filmmaker. Indeed, as De Palma states in the doc, “The Hollywood system we work in, it does nothing but destroy you. There’s nothing good about it in terms of creativity. So, you’re battling a very difficult system, and all the values of that system are the opposite of to what goes into making original, good movies.” Starting in the underground as someone influenced by everything from static Warhol trash to Michelangelo Antonioni's existential (anti)melodramas and learning the trade by making propaganda for the NAACP and amateur shorts for underground film festivals, De Palma's life has certainly been one long strange cinematic journey so it is not surprising that Baumbach and Paltrow's 107-minute doc feels like the CliffsNotes version of his career.

 Aside from a couple exceptions, including Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) and the apparently-uneven commercial sci-fi-horror-thriller The Fury (1978), I am very familiar with De Palma’s oeuvre and even went to the effort of watching his endearingly crude experimental cinephiliac short Woton's Wake (1962), formative meta-horror feature Murder a la Mod (1968), and ‘avant-garde’ split-screen doc Dionysus in '69 (1970), so I am very well aware that the auteur has a big veiny pulsating hard-on for Hitchcock and, to a lesser extent, Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, De Palma’s glaring flaunting of these influences is one of the reasons that I initially found his films to be so outstandingly annoying, as I may be a cinephile but it is hard for me to respect a filmmaker that knows a lot about cinema but very little bit about real-life (not to mention, culture, philosophy, etc.). Yet, as the documentary, which rather fittingly begins with footage from Vertigo, reveals, De Palma’s personality is indubitably intertwined in his work as he is, not unlike a character from one of his many films, a voyeuristic pervert of sorts that not only played peeping tom on his philandering father, but also broke into his padre’s office to get photographic evidence of these traumatic extramarital excursions (not surprisingly, as he alludes to in the doc, De Palma is a mommy's boy). While he does not say it outright, De Palma recognizes he is an exceedingly emotionless prick that, due to circumstances, was forced by circumstance to develop a fighting spirit, or as he explains in a relatively cold and collected fashion, “I lived in a family full of these incredible egotists who seemed to be very insensitive about the kind of damage they were doing to each other and my middle brother is very sensitive. I don’t feel that he was powerful enough to stand up to these forces. I used to protect him all the time. He doesn’t have the kind of combativeness that I have. So, it would be like this little kid trying to say, ‘Stop shouting, it’s not his fault.’ And nobody would pay any attention to me and I was basically ineffective, and I became very tough because of that.” Indeed, while De Palma did not get the opportunity to cut up human flesh like his father, he got to cinematically simulate it many times in a highly sensationalized fashion and ultimately project such unsavory fantasies to millions of people from around the world via his fucked films.  In short, De Palma's films, which are big on a certain unnerving soullessness and artifice, are the natural, albeit patently perverted, consequence of the innate soullessness and artifice of suburbia.

 In the doc, De Palma makes it quite clear that he was big on babes from an early age and was prone to do stupid things to impress them, including quite characteristically secretly filming an all-female sex ed class. Naturally, the auteur would eventually use his success as a filmmaker to become a would-be pussy-magnet of sorts and this led to three curiously short-lived failed marriages, including his first (and longest) marriage to Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981) star Nancy Allen (who undoubtedly owes the best roles of her career to De Palma). Not exactly the handsomest or most kindhearted of bourgeois goombah chaps, it is not easy to see why it might be somewhat hard for De Palma—a reasonably educated fellow from a well-off yet dysfunctional upper-middleclass family—to keep a dame, but there seems to be more complicated reasons, namely his obscenely obsessive workaholic loner mentality. Indeed, as the filmmaker proudly boasts in the doc, “That’s the upside of being a loner, for the most part, you can suddenly say, ‘This isn’t working.’” Somewhat surprisingly considering his dorky exterior, De Palma also reveals an alpha-male-mentality when it comes to women and work, even boasting in the doc, “People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing. My true wife is my movie, not you.” Of course, this also explains De Palma’s sheer and utter lack of a knack for the truly romantic despite his flagrant obsession for fine (unclad) female flesh. In that sense, De Palma’s films are about as sexually mature as the sort of slasher trash that he wonderfully parodies in a Psycho-esque fashion at the beginning of Blow Out. Undoubtedly, it is also fitting that De Palma’s failed Nicholas Cage vehicle Snake Eyes (1998)—a morally confused political-thriller that begins with a bang but fizzles out like lame sex—concludes on a question mark as far as the semi-sleazy antihero Rick Santoro’s romantic interests are concerned. While De Palma might be a sometimes obnoxiously formulaic filmmaker, he’s also somewhat of a realist and cynic that knows nothing in life is guaranteed, especially where love is concerned. 

 As his incredibly uneven Godardian comedy Greetings (1968)—a film even more insufferably dated than Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) and La Chinoise (1967)—reveals in a rather obnoxious fashion, De Palma is a proud draft-dodger and he even goes so far as to detail his experiences in a shamelessly self-satisfied manner in the doc, remarking with a certain sickening degree of bourgeois chutzpah, “I mean, if you wanted to stay out of the war, and you were a middle-class kid, you could figure out a way to do it. I finally had to go in and I had a letter from a doctor. I took everything to make me allergic, so I could hardly breathe. I was up all night and I was running around, wheezing. They took me right to the psychiatrist. I had to dead stare right at his forehead and talked about my homosexual feelings. I was a communist. I was a homosexual. I was crazy. And I think with my letter from my doctor, that got me out.” While I can certainly see why someone would not want to fight in the Vietnam War, De Palma—a rather soft guy that seems like he's never even been in a fistfight—would go on to cinematically heap insult on injury to the young vets of his generation by directing the trying antiwar turd Casualties of War (1989) where he uses his privileged position as a famous filmmaker to depict GIs as sociopathic rapist killers of the inordinately ravenous redneck sort (and, of course, it is urban half-Hebrew Sean Penn of all putrid people portraying such a preposterous caricature).

Aside from working with rather redundant material on a case that had already been covered almost two decades earlier in a more intriguing and subversive fashion by German auteur Michael Verhoeven’s O.K. (1970)—a film so controversial that it literally caused the end of the 1970 Berlin International Film Festival after the jury president, overrated Hollywood maverick George Stevens, demanded that the flick be removed, thereupon resulting in the resignations of the festival directors—De Palma’s Vietnam War flick is pure sensationalized shit; or, more specifically, grotesquely emotionally manipulative celluloid manure as directed by a shameless draft-dodger that actually dares to shit on men that were considerably less fortunate than him.  After all, De Palma's Scarface collaborator Oliver Stone might have some rather retarded political beliefs, but he at least served bravely in the Vietnam War (where he was injured twice in combat) and thus earned the right to direct a film like Platoon (1986), which is naturally totally superior to Causalities of War.  Notably, De Palma would do almost the same exact thing with his all-the-more-insufferable digital diarrhea pseudo-doc Redacted (2007). Aside from being audaciously aberrant agitprop of the lowest order, this positively putrid abortion demonstrates De Palma's desperation in terms of attempting to be relevant as a filmmaker as it is found-footage-feces—a popular cheap gimmick at the time it was made—where the auteur discards what he does best in terms of technical prowess.  Needless to say, Palma's war films have about as much sincerity and credibility as a serious dramatic film about child sexual abuse as directed by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen.

 Admittedly, another reason I used to have a much lower opinion of De Palma is because he is responsible for directing the favorite films of wiggers, rappers, and gutter-dwelling gangsters, including Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993), henceforth making him responsible for at least inspiring some of the most savage untermenschen criminality of the past couple decades. Indeed, I can remember being in middle school during the late-1990s and noticing that seemingly every single male negro and wigger that I encountered was sporting a Scarface t-shirt that was two or three sizes too big with matching saggy pants.  In fact, it took me well over another decade to ever to gain the open-mindedness to actually watch the film as I naturally associated it with the worst sort of retarded rabble. Luckily, in the documentary, the viewer discovers that De Palma—a distinguished dork that has virtually nil in common with the ghetto lumpenproletariat that the film inspired—is seemingly disgusted by this phenomenon and refused to endorse it despite the potential for monetary reward, or as he explains in regard to the ultimate legacy of Scarface, “A decade or so later, it found its audience with the hip-hop generation. Well, since I’m not a big fan of hip-hop, I knew nothing about it until people basically told me about it. Universal came to me and asked if I would approve a hip-hop soundtrack to SCARFACE, and I said absolutely not.”  Still, it is rather curious that a sheltered bourgeois boy like De Palma would inspire such insipid savage delinquency, as it reveals a certain sense of primitive sociopathy and emotional retardation.  In that sense, it is no surprise that De Palma always fails miserably when it comes to depicting drama.

Despite his seemingly lifelong covert philo-semitism (aside from once being married to Jewess Gale Anne Hurd and having a daughter with her, De Palma's virtual autobiographical stand-in in Greetings and its 1970 sequel Hi, Mom! is a swarthy anti-white degenerate would-be-pornographer named ‘Jon Rubin’), De Palma has mostly shied away from PC bullshit as demonstrated by the rabid anti-wop rhetoric of Sean Connery’s heroic mick cop character Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables (1987) and the various unflattering racial caricatures featured in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), including an evil Hebraic district attorney that opportunistically uses an interracial hit-and-run case to help further his re-election. Of course, it also goes without saying that De Palma has also deeply offended various LGBT authoritarian types over the decades with his depictions of trannys and lesbians in films like Dressed to Kill and Passion (2012).  One also cannot forget that De Palma has mostly been an equal-opportunity-hater when it comes to the so-called fairer sex, as you arguably won’t find a film with a more unflattering depiction of horny high school girls than his classic Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976). Even in his later failures like Femme Fatale (2002) and The Black Dahlia (2006), De Palma manages to seamlessly create an association between feminine beauty and unbridled sociopathy, as if femininity itself—or at least femininity in its most physically fine and statuesque form—is innately deadly and destructive, but I digress. 

 Interestingly, in an interview with Joseph Gelmis featured in the book The Film Director as Superstar (1970) conducted when De Palma was a virtual unknown, the then-young-filmmaker would confess, “Godard’s a terrific influence, of course. If I could be the American Godard, that would be great.” Of course, De Palma, who is not even in the same universe as Godard in terms of artistic and cultural literacy (in fact, I would argue that there is more references to high kultur in an obscure Godard flick like Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) than in De Palma's entire oeuvre), would inevitably take the virtual opposite route, which he foretold at the very end of the same interview when he stated in regard to his next film, “It’s probably going to be a Hitchcockian suspense movie, which I think will be good for us. I’d like to try a change of pace and concentrate on a technical, stylistic exercise. I’m interested in things like split-screen and 3-D. I’d like to work in a different form for a while. I wouldn’t mind doing something like PSYCHO the next time, something that reprieves me from the political and moral dilemmas of our society for a while.” Needless to say, I do not think it is a coincidence that mechanical-minded De Palma ended up a successful Hollywood filmmaker and the rather mercurial Godard would eventually isolate himself into increasing esotericism that undoubtedly reached its zenith with the 8-part avant-garde video project Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998).  After all, while Hitchcock—a fairly literal-minded perfectionist that was rarely genuinely poetic—merely continued to master his craft throughout his career as if he was simply focused on directing a different version of the same exact film, Godard has never stopped evolving as an artist to the point where it has had a dubious impact on his career and left him completely isolated.  Of course, De Palma's evolution (or lack thereof) as a filmmaker could not be more different from Godard's, thereupon making the French auteur's early influence on the Hollywood filmmaker seem almost absurd on retrospect.

 While there are many criticisms that can be made against De Palma and his films, I think it is safe to say that he is Hitchcock’s greatest and most ambitious heir, as he has cleverly utilized some of Big H’s greatest tools and techniques and taken them to their natural degenerate conclusion, at least in his greatest films like Dressed to Kill.  Compared to Hitchcock's Australian disciple Richard Franklin (Patrick, Psycho II), who undoubtedly made some entertaining films despite being somewhat of a hack, De Palma seems like a great master.  While one could certainly argue that François Truffaut was the superior filmmaker, I think it is safe to say to De Palma even manages to show a greater innate affinity with his uneven Vertigo-esque Schrader-penned feature Obsession (1976) to Hitch than the French auteur did with flagrantly Hitchcock-esque The Bride Wore Black (1968). Likewise, Sisters (1973) might be an obscenely onanistic hodgepodge of hyper Hitchcockian cinematic debauchery that can be accurately described as a glorified slasher, but it still works. Thankfully, De Palma has always given credit where credit is due and has never obscured his influences, even if he probably should have had more eclectic influences.  Of course, if you're a very literal-minded math/science nerd type that does not understand poetry or art in general, Hitchcock—a virtual cinematic engineer—is probably the most apt filmmaker to steal from as his films were practically created in pre-production and storyboarded to death to the point where the English auteur apparently found the actual directing of the films to be the most boring part.

Naturally, in the doc, De Palma constantly references Hitchcock, though the most revealing moment comes when he remarks, “People talk about Hitchcock all the time, you know, being so influential.  I’ve never found too many people that followed after the Hitchcock school except for me. Here’s a guy that developed those incredible visual storytelling vocabulary, and it’s sort of going to die with him. And I was like, the one practitioner that took up the things that he pioneered and built them into different forms in a style that I was evolving. It’s like a whole modern form that he created. Having studied a lot of directors and having lived now to practically being 70, you see that your creative periods are in—most directors are in—in their 30s, their 40s, and their 50s. They, and obviously, they can go on and make another 20 movies or 10 movies, but you’ll probably only be talking about those movies they made in their 30s, their 40s, and their 50s. You know, and I’ve always thought Hitchcock was a great example, because, you know, after VERTIGO and PSYCHO, and you can talk about THE BIRDS all you want and all the movies he made after that and then of course, the critical establishment finally caught up with him and started to write about what a genius he was. Except those movies aren’t as good as the ones he made in his 30s, his 40s, and his 50s.” 

 While I have to disagree with De Palma’s assessment of Hitchcock’s oeuvre (Undoubtedly, I think Vertigo and Psycho are assuredly his greatest films), the Italian-American auteur seems to have personally found a parallel with his hero in terms of the trajectories of their filmmaking careers. In my opinion, De Palma has not directed a truly great film in well over three decades. Indeed, aside from Body Double (1984) being what I would describe as the last great truly De Palmian film, I would argue that the filmmaker’s underrated genre/gender-bending horror-musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is also superior to anything he has done in the past three decades. Additionally, at best, I see films like The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible (1996) as not much more than expertly-crafted hack work and De Palma even more or less admits in the doc that he was chasing fame and fortune when he chose these specific highly commercial projects. While De Palma has somewhat gone back to his roots in recent years, including depicting deadly dykes in Passion and rather cynical utltra-violence and political corruption his latest Domino (2019), he seems incapable of matching his contemporary William Friedkin with a film as insanely and intoxicatingly idiosyncratic as Bug (2006) or as freshly fucked as Killer Joe (2011). In that sense, the documentary De Palma feels more like a sort of autobiographical obituary of a filmmaker than a mere career-spanning tribute. Either way, I hope I don’t live to see the day when such a film is made in honor of Noah Baumbach or his shabbos goy compatriot Wes Anderson (indeed, it is no exaggeration for me to say that De Palma is easily Baumbach’s most entertaining and least insufferable film). Compared to documentaries on European arthouse auteurs like Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense (2010), Mondo Lux : The Visual Universe of Werner Schroeter (2011), Roland Klick: The Heart Is a Hungry Hunter (2013), and Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (2015), the documentary certainly feels more superficial and less arty and intimate, yet that also seems somewhat fitting considering the almost clinical filmmaking method and demeanor of its titular subject. In that sense, we should be extremely grateful that Jem Cohen did not direct the doc.  I also found it rather fitting that De Palma is a one-man-show and not plagued with the sort of prosaic puffery or pedantic pontificating that typically plagues film docs featuring actors and film historians.  I am not sure about De Palma's philosophical influences, but Thus Spoke De Palma would have certainly been a more appealing name for a doc about such a cinematically monomaniacal man.

 Say you will about deathly dry and deracinated dago De Palma—a weird wop that attended a Quaker school as opposed to a Catholic one—but he has earned his place in cinema history by creating some of the most exciting Hollywood films during the most exciting time in Hollywood history when he could have just as easily degenerated into an autistic basement-dwelling dweeb like actor-turned-auteur Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed to Kill and today be an elderly virgin that collects action figures as inspired by film franchises created by his more money-grubbing-inclined buddies George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. One must also respect De Palma’s lifelong use of split-screen and putting the technique to better use than Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey did in their playfully plodding experimental anti-epic Chelsea Girls (1966).  As to what makes a real ‘auteur,’ De Palma provides a simple yet fairly concise answer at the end of the doc when he states, “You make a certain kind of movie because that’s the way you see things. And these images keep reoccurring again and again in your movies. And that’s what makes you who you are.” As to the meaning of an uprooted guido Quaker of the spiritually vacant sort being one of the more interesting mainstream Hollywood filmmakers of his generation, Spengler certainly foresaw the future of art when he wrote, “Two centuries after Puritanism the mechanistic conception of the world stands at its zenith. It is the effective religion of the time. Even those who still thought themselves to be religious in the old sense, to be ‘believers in God,’ were only mistaking the world in which their waking-consciousness was mirroring itself. Culture is ever synonymous with religious creativeness. Every great Culture begins with a mighty theme that rises out of the pre-urban countryside, is carried through in the cities of art and intellect and closes with a finale of materialism in the world-cities.”  Undoubtedly, with his hopelessly urban fetishistic post-Christian voyeuristic gaze, De Palma has—whether he knows it or not—artistically embraced the twilight of the Occident.

 Undoubtedly, De Palma’s films represent—in their nonchalantly nihilistic depiction of sex and death and sheer and utter lack of authentic pathos despite constant depictions of extreme human suffering—this decidedly detached modern materialism where the figurative Nietzschean ‘Death of God’ has inevitably lead to such pathetic things as spastic scopophiliac killers and bourgeois-endorsed performance art that involves negroes raping white women (e.g. the ‘Be Black, Baby’ segment from Hi, Mom!), among other things. Of course, I would argue that Mission: Impossible is the sickest of De Palma’s films as its popularity reflects the collective cultural, artistic, and spiritual bankruptcy of the majority population (whereas, despite its degeneracy, a dreary De Palma flick like Blow Out at least recognizes an innate spiritual sickness of sorts that ripples throughout society). Likewise, Vertigo feels like a deeply spiritual film when compared to the metaphysically barren landscapes associated with virtually all of De Palma’s films. While the documentary does not make the case for De Palma being a sort of hopelessly spiritually despoiled M. C. Escher of genre filmmaking (which is how I see him), it does (largely unwittingly) demonstrate that the auteur—an anti-authority type that, somewhat paradoxically, has done quite well for himself working within the system—is a sad symptom of his era and his films are a symptomatic of his own sicknesses, or as the filmmaker states himself, “Most of my movies are about megalomania and guys that live in the insulated universes and the crazy things that happen within those insulated universes, which is something that continues to fascinate me.” In the age of technics, De Palma—a cold and almost creepily calculating character that seems to interpret every aspect of life as some sort of scientific experiment or technical problem to be rationally solved—is the auteur we deserve but probably don’t need, as no one, no matter how hopelessly cratter-brained or fiercely philistinic, deserves the ungodly horror of living in a morally and spiritually inverted world full of ebonics-literate troglodytes sporting size-XXXL Scarface t-shirts.  Still, there's no denying that Dressed to Kill is one of the most shamelessly stylish films ever made, not to mention a nice escapist aesthetic antidote to the tyrannical tranny terror that has recently plagued the Occident.

-Ty E

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