Friday, June 17, 2016

Brian de Palma at Cahiers in the 90s

With all that’s going on these days relating to Brian de Palma, I was thinking that over here at Toronto Film Review that I should complete the overview of Cahiers du Cinéma’s writing on him after having already posted overviews of their eighties and two-thousand periods. A general context of these critiques at the magazine emerges after having now read and translated all (or at least most) of their critiques.

The following is a short overview of the relation between Cahiers and Brian de Palma: At first there was Pascal Kané introducing de Palma at the magazine through an analysis of his early horror films (Phantom of the Paradise, Sisters, Carrie) in the June 1977 issue (N.277); Jean Douchet would prod the late seventies critics on not liking de Palma which would lead to a discussion on the subject in the July-August 1981 issue (N.326) which is also the catalyst for Serge Daney to interview de Palma himself in their special Made in U.S.A. 1982 issue (N.334-35); then there were the early eighties critics such as Alain Philippon, Michel Chion and Olivier Assayas who provided the groundwork by reviewing these de Palma films (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double); in the nineties Iannis Katsahnias is important for writing about Casualties of War and Mission: Impossible, Thierry Jousse on Raising Cain, Jean-François Rauger on Carlito’s Way, and Cédric Anger also on Mission: Impossible; with the dawn of the two-thousands there were new critics picking up the de Palma torch so both Emmanuel Burdeau and Stéphane Delorme (his first text) wrote on Snake Eyes (and later Mission to Mars), Jean-Marc Lalanne on Femme Fatale, Hervé Aubron on The Black Dahlia, and many of these new critics (with some new ones) on Redacted, before the new editorship would give Passion a dossier which included a lengthy interview, a critique by Stéphane du Mesnildot, and an interview with Pino Donaggio.

Throughout these texts de Palma reaches a peak in the late nineties (with Carlito’s Way getting voted as the best film of that decade) after a mostly triumphant eighties period. De Palma at Cahiers offers the successive post-new wave generation of critics an opportunity to discuss and how to think of a cinema in a Hitchcockian filiation. Giving them an opportunity to discuss the lessons of the master and building off these lessons for a new historical moment, which with it includes new truths, technologies and spectator expectations. De Palma should also be contextualized along with other (quasi-)outsider American filmmakers, such as Clint Eastwood and Abel Ferrara, that have allowed Cahiers to better appreciate the portrayal of the country’s shadow reflections.

Hopefully all of this de Palma attention, screenings and writing doesn’t only offer nostalgic fantasies of an earlier and trashier cinema but can be the springboard for his cinema and his ideas to shape, influence and reinvigorate a new generation of filmmakers and the future of things. Aside from Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, Nicolas Winding Refn (The Neon Demon), David Fincher (best argued by Laurent Vachaud), Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, The Knick), Vince Gilligan and maybe Cameron Crowe (Aloha), probably the two of the most exciting new films that were made in his shadow are the political corruption Indonesian film Joko Anwar’s A Copy of my Mind (2015) and the moon landing conspiracy thriller Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche.

De Palma shouldn’t only influence mainstream mid-, late-career filmmakers who have the means to their disposal as de Palma’s model still offers some of the most stimulating ideas on the possibilities of filmmaking. More independent filmmakers should try to make work in de Palma’s shadow: How to think about the fictional veil of images? How to engage with the great work and masters of film history? How to bring back old fashioned techniques (split-screen, long-takes) and make them new again? How to engage with new technologies and new spectator expectations? Essentially, what truths are there to be told today and what’s the best way to tell them? – D.D.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Cahiers, March 1991, N.441), w/ Notes sur d’autres films critique by Iannis Katsahnias.
After getting torn apart by the American critics, The Bonfire of the Vanities arrived to France with the reputation of being the worst movie of the year – a total failure of 45 million dollars – and one of the worst commercial disasters since Ishtar… Before going on, we’re forced to ask ourselves a simple question: Is it really that bad? The answer is: no. It’s a simple comedic diversion… Adapting the Tom Wolfe book (which the fans might prefer), this adaptation from the auteur of Dressed to Kill should be considered along some of his most contested enterprises (Scarface, The Untouchables). I can’t find anything here that’s worthy of his best mise en scène… Though there is the opening scene: a five minute long-take where the camera follows Peter Fallow (the narrator played by Bruce Willis) at his arrival where he’s accepting a literary prize. But it’s only a technical tour de force that tries to recreate the illusion of live-ness which is medium-specific to television. By going against the grain while telling this story full of Hitchcockian situations (e.g. the divide between culpability and innocence), Brian de Palma returns to a coldness, misanthropy and the cynicism of the last two films of the filmmaker he most fetishizes.

Raising Cain (Cahiers, October 1992, N.460), w/ Cahiers Critique by Thierry Jousse, Citizen Cain.
Raising Cain is for Brian de Palma a return to the maniériste horror cinema that he’s always been into. After the failure of The Bonfire of the Vanities, he needed to without a doubt return to this familiar terrain that he has abandoned since Body Double, which already seemed like both a limit point and a point of no return in terms of its subject matter… Raising Cain is then a sort of post-script – the last one, without a doubt? – to the parody perfume of his earlier accounts of Hitchcockian variations but now he pushes it to the point of saturation which it seems like it would now be hard to surmount… Just like a painter, de Palma isolates a detail from Psycho and diffuses it in variations throughout the film. Here it’s the schizophrenic split personality that’s being explored: it’s no longer the mother who’s responsible for the abuse but more simply just the father. In short Raising Cain multiplies the doubles in all of its potential variations with all sorts of simulacrums and events that can possibly proliferate from the base psycho motif… In fact its scenario is in its own way exemplary. It points by way of absurdity the perversion of remakes and the dangers of simulacrums. The principal character Cain is the victim of paternal manipulations who has dragged him along since childhood. As any respectful schizophrenic would, Cain has lost all references to any initially fixed identity. So all that is left are these copies that live on in their own lives with no reference to the original… This is exactly the situation of de Palma’s films, which all the while being entirely in submission to the hard laws of the Hichcockian father, attempt to emancipate themselves. He then risks the possibility of reaching a level of uncertainty that can then become dangerous (see: an impossibility to exist without the relation to the father)… We would understand that Raising Cain, all the while a being a thriller that alternates between the best and worst scenes, is especially a pure mental construction, which makes it more like a theoretical film. But what we see in the oeuvre itself is a game with the spectator, which mixes traditional devices of suspense with a distancing parody that is pretty perverse, all which is being adapted at a time of new technologies and video games… There is first off a story that is totally improbable which we don’t really understand, as if the mental confusion of the hero has literally contaminated the film. And then, fast enough, we notice that de Palma, loyal to himself, is trying to construct his own space-time animated only by the logic of his phantasms… So we slide from a dream sequence to a flashback, we jump from a mental image to a quotidian scene so that we slowly loose track of the time of the story. De Palma has contempt for the naturalism that has doesn’t have joyousness. Throughout its narration, de Palma uses means that are sometimes coarse, sometimes clichés, but always thinking with the spectator as he gives them the means to be conscious of the dupery that they’re going through so then that they could surmount they’re provisionary blindness… So there’s the exchange of gifts between the wife and her lover (an idea that curiously recalls Montparnasse Levallois the sketch by Godard in Paris vu par…) or the wig of the psychiatrist which is described earlier on in the story as it usually happens as easily read motifs of the phantasms that contribute to the pictorial visibility of the mise en scène… One must eventually come to the question that for de Palma is evidently central, since for him everything is mise en scène. From this point of view, Raising Cain is a kind-of strange object that mixes bad taste with an ugliness along with other various ideas about filmmaking but with an audacity that would embarrass all of the little masters quasi-Hitchcockian filmmakers that are popping up everywhere these days in Hollywood. There is for de Palma an ontological ugliness of the close-up that culminates in the first quarter of the film, and particularly with the first doppelganger of John Lithgow who rubs against or even surpasses the ridiculousness proper to him… If there is an obscenity in Raising Cain it is first off in the grating faces that de Palma seems to look at with repulsion (which is a paradox for a metteur en scène!). On the other hand, when he decides to film in wider shots and to organize space in the frame or in the function of a sophisticated montage he then gets to a beautiful formalism that, never gratuitous, seems usually tied to a sexual jouissance… The official critics, American just as much as French, dismissed Raising Cain as they described it as too out-there, ridiculous or qualifying it as a ‘large psycho-paternal pudding’ (Danièle Heymann, Le Monde), as they prefer films where the aesthetic doesn’t create any ripples and would never commit any offences against good taste. If he is sometimes at the limit of self-sabotage, the films of Brian de Palma do not at all merit this contempt while on the other hand they shine of all of the pleasures of the cinema. He has no peer. Raising Cain is finally the joyous antidote to the general normalizing aesthetic.

Carlito’s Way (Cahiers, April 1994, N.478), w/ Film du Mois critique by Jean-François Rauger, La Mort aux trousses; and Sequence essay by Vicent Ostria, Passage de la boule blanche.
The virtuous opening scene immediately indicates the nature of the story for Brian de Palma. A man dies. He’s lying on the ground. He remembers the past. Carlito’s Way begins in a similar manner to that of Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World. How to program two-and-a-half hours like a mental trip? Where the frontier between the imaginary and the réel is indiscernible and where the spirit pushes itself into the heart of an ideal world that of a dreamt universe. Carlito’s Way is the reunion, ten years after Scarface, of the auteur of Carrie with Al Pacino. This distance is concretely present in Carlito’s Way where all of the energy of the remake of the Howard Hawks film has been refined and concentrated in its pursuit of its mature protagonist who is given a second chance… Everything will return to the oneiric path that confronts the grace of a dream with the weight of the réel. The months that separate the departure from prison by Carlo Brigante leading to his violent end at the Grand Central terminal are restituted like a somnambulist itinerary, which are punctuated by subtle flights and displacements… The end scene of the concrete image of a dead Carlito in the New York train station is similar to that of Kevin Costner in A Perfect World who is lying down in the grass like dreamer and where you could see the massive and loud silhouette of a helicopter above him. There is a shared menace of the social order in conflict with the promise of a different world without all of its problems… The image of the Bahamas advertisement, which the film would return to at the end of the film, would start to move. What exactly is a cliché if not a stopped image? What is de Palma’s project if not to try to stop this image? That this image starts to transform is an a priori movement determined to become and appear somewhere where it’s not expected… It is certainly not impossible to see Kleinfeld like the negative of Carlo Brigante. But the character of the lawyer means a lot more than that. He surely incarnates the dialectic, which constitute the cinema of Brian de Palma, that of the opposition between a triviality with a nobleness, the attraction and repulsion that represents the sentiment tested vis-à-vis the vulgarity like an obligated test. The scene where Kleinfeld gives the gangsters he invited a hard time during his garden party is funny because it illustrates especially the obligation for those who want to be criminals. Like how they are confronted with the baseness of reality. Like de Palma himself by stealing from Hitchcock he had to be confronted with it because of his own proper contemporaneity that which is in evidence due to his triviality and sexually sordid details. In this regards, Carlito’s Way re-finds all of the bad taste that corresponds to the imagination of its characters who don’t have any qualities and who testify to  their incredible vitality… Carlito’s silhouette is that of a revenant, that of an individual defined by a prestigious past that has then become mythological. The magnificent interpretation by Pacino gives to the character the lassitude (‘I’m so tired…’ are his last words) of the one who arrives after the fact. There is without a doubt that Godard’s Detective can be re-found here as this tired shadow who popped up in this disreputable genre film… The cinema of de Palma has definitively experienced its own mourning over the loss of innocence of images. Images, which today have lost their virginity, can no longer be taken at face value by the spectator. This loss of belief is here the prior terrain of an operation that aims to transform the nature of what is shown for, by the end, restore the illusionary belief of the spectator. Courtland in Obsession folded reality to render it conforming to his dream of the repetition of a primary scene. De Palma restitutes in Carlito’s Way a world that belongs to the dreams of his hero. But here, like in Obsession, the all-encompassing power of a desire impregnates the totality of the universe that is rendered absolutely credible and experienced in that mode with the laws of reality. In Obsession, it was the machination of the absolute completion of something unrealizable while here it’s the hope at the end of the un-finishing chase, of the place that is never attainable. How to believe in the image that of Pacino fleeing towards his paradise (that of a train taking him to Miami) when we see him already getting killed right at the beginning? The force of the film is there. Reconstruction of that belief while the cards are already set. The cinéaste re-finds his way with an authentic lyricism, full of energy and which is much lacking from most of contemporary American cinema where these technical calculations never fully open up towards an emotion. Here is finally a project that distances itself (as always, let’s hope) that of the Brian de Palma of his last few cynical oeuvres from recent years (The Untouchables, The Bonfire of the Vanities)… Carlito’s Way situates its action in the seventies, the period where de Palma was discovered as the foremost maniériste Hollywood filmmaker who was also dialoguing with its origins. The film definitively conserves this maniérist cold virtuosity, reassessment, and stretching. But this historical moment is here re-seen like the adolescence of an art that now has to lean upon itself and by continuing to understand how to mature, with the risk that all they could have experienced came from references of the mythic past, then what could the present look like when there are no longer any illusions? The period for autobiography has arrived.
Vicent Ostria in his close-reading of the pool hall scene Passage de la boule blanche (also a reference to the historical street the Cahiers office was on),
The complexity and rhythmic organization of this micro-scene in a film that is otherwise anti-spectacular (at least for de Palma) proves that Brian de Palma remains one of the best, maybe one of the last great stylist of American cinema. We can doubt that a French action filmmaker (Boisset or Besson) could have only done something like this through a few boring shots.

Mission: Impossible (Cahiers, September 1996, N.505), w/ Letter from Hollywood essay by Bill Krohn, Tornades, Martiens et ordinateurs.
The two major economic successes, Twister and Mission: Impossible, are both films that are realized by metteur en scènes that are sensible to a cinematographic modernity but who still choose to align themselves in the descendance of Alfred Hitchcock… While Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which is underwhelming, is made under the sign of Spielberg and Lucas…. Between the commercial stakes and an ideal cinephilic ego these films offer a nodal point for the trends of the new Hollywood action film… Twister confirms that Jan de Bont is the best action filmmaker in Hollywood today… At first all of small-time action filmmakers were ripping off Die Hard but now they’re copying Speed. This catapulted the ancient member of the Netherlands New Wave to the A-list of Hollywood… De Bont’s major skill and what he brings that is new is to get the participation of the public while watching his films… Speed is one of the most theoretical films in the history of cinema.

Brian de Palma already understood the new relation of the public to the spectacle when he made this film that subsumed to the laws of the studios. With Mission: Impossible he signed his first real success since The Untouchables but this time here, despite rumors that suggested he had problems with his producer Tom Cruise, it’s essentially a de Palma film that he made because, among other things, there are in fact in Mission: Impossible three films that are really different… The third time that I saw it there were so many more details that were revealed… Once Ethan’s original team gets killed, his new team in Mission: Impossible is composed of losers who are meant to fight back against the CIA, which allows de Palma to advance his version of Mission: Impossible that conforms to the taste of the nineties public. This would allow equally to the auteur of perverted remakes of Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho to give us his version of North by Northwest which circles around the ‘transference of culpability’ which would not be resolved until Ethan captures the person that first tried to trap him… The homages of de Palma to Hitchcock are never pure copies but instead he utilizes Hitchcockian dispositifs to construct his own films that are habitually allegories for a modernist cinema. And from its opening credits we already find a good de Palma film in the vein of Obsession or Body Double where we strongly identify with the victim-hero in his elaborate mise en scène where he’s tricking the evil Russian… Like de Bont, de Palma needs to assume the psychoanalytic implications of his Hitchcockian model but he resolves them in a way that is totally unique to himself… The scene where Ethan becomes the father is the real end of the film as after that everything that the characters do makes no sense. Jim kills Claire for no apparent reason, which leads to De Palma being able to give the public what it paid for so that then Ethan confronts Jim and one of his conspirators who’s chasing him in a helicopter as they’re on an express train between London to Paris – this is an action scene whose parody character is underlined by the overcharged orchestration that Danny Elfman has composed over the original Lalo Schifrin theme of Mission: Impossible. In the epilogue Ethan, who had refused to re-work with the CIA, is on the same plane that Jim was on at the beginning of the film with the same flight attendant proposing to him a CD-ROM. To become the father implies a price to pay: Ethan was able to escape the mechanism of the television series to only re-find himself in the trap of what Hollywood calls the franchise film, an indeterminate cohort of run of the mill products and sequels, which, without a doubt, would follow this brilliant beginning and which most likely will be made without the participation of Brian de Palma.

Mission: Impossible (Cahiers, November 1996, N.507), w/ Editorial by Serge Toubiana, Brian de Palma ou l’invraisemblable vérité; Cahiers Critique, Le simulacre simulé, by Cédric Anger; essay by Iannis Katsahnias, Le monde-regard de Brian de Palma; and short-essay by Thierry Jousse, Mission: Impossible de la série au film.

Serge Toubiana, Editorial.
Brian de Palma’s Mission: Impossible is an oeuvre that’s really stimulating for both the eyes and the spirit… All the while responding to a public demand (grosso modo that of the spectacle), Mission: Impossible is also an incredible exercise in mise en scène, guided by a few really strong and relevant ideas about the virtual world, the manipulation of gazes, doubles, the loss of senses and to the heart of things that are hidden… There is in his oeuvre a hidden dimension, something that’s obsessional and sickly: de Palma is the cinéaste par excellence of passions and of melancholy… We know the counter-argument: a spectacle-film, a commissioned product, a compromise with the industry… Too many half-truths that don’t really allow you to see the actual energy and intelligence of this cinéaste who from film after film is a termite from inside the Hollywood spectacle… De Palma is without a doubt in the really reserved circle of the best cinéastes in activity.
Cédric Anger, Le simulacre simulé.
Everything here is the art of manipulation. The permanent simulacrum. In Mission: Impossible a mise en scène always hides another one and every situation can be compared to a suitcase with either double or triple compartments. It’s that the oeuvre plays a game directly with us, the spectator. If the characters in the film don’t have any veritable existence then it is in fact us the spectator who are its principal protagonists. As early as its credit sequence, de Palma brings us right into the spectacle: we go through the movements from watching events unfold on a screen to then seeing the events unfold live as if the cinéaste was literally allowing us to penetrate the image. Like Hitchcock, Brian de Palma is not a cinéaste of distancing effect but of its opposite: that of an absolute participation. Ethan Hunt is our double as he’s exposed to all of the dangers on the screen – like an atom constantly in movement. The spectator enters right into the action. De Palma can then play with the manipulation and orientation of the information, from false identities and to total inversions between appearances and reality… De Palma founds his system in a magical universe in the sense of the theatrical magician who retracts and then reveals information as he presents and removes information as a function to reveal information to the spectator… Mission: Impossible tells the story of nothing except the one of a character who finds himself inside of a movement, decrypting it, becoming active in it and whose playing it all by himself. Ethan Hunt decodes the mise en scènes that surround him and he conquers them by taking up new appearances. The transformations and the make-up and the different masks that he wears not only allows him to save himself but to take possession of the mise en scène through an artifice. In this combat with his spectator and this debauchery of manipulation, Brian de Palma re-introduces an idea from the experimental and despised Raising Cain that he already pushed really far: the image of a person who never dies. De Palma bases his work in the presence of cinema in the minds of his spectators. In their visual memory. A scene that is known by the public reappears suddenly on the screen but touched up and re-worked. The suspense here doesn’t only spring from our knowledge of the action (the spectator knows a little more than the main character) but of our knowledge of other films (the spectator knows how similar scenes unfolded in other films and expect certain events). The oeuvre of Brian de Palma is quintessential maniérisme as he no longer nourishes his films from the world directly but through a referential relationship of images from ancient films (usually Hitchcockian) that experience a rebirth under our eyes but through the image itself of a character who we thought was lost who then reappears. The character no longer exists as a real person but only as an image that circulates and that can be brought back as he desires. De Palma can then add to the confusion and play up the blank slate and the expectations of the spy thriller where faces circulate like independent images, disappearing between a whole game of doppelgangers and masks, of decorations and make-up. All of the images are susceptible of containing another one and everything susceptible to representation is up to be changed. The image is never drained. The chaos of appearances as played out in Mission: Impossible become terrifying since there is no end. The last scene of the film where Ethan is in the plane experiencing the same scene as Phelps did just like him and embarking on a new mission is just like the ultimate image in Raising Cain where the principal character which we believed was dead just reappeared… The confusion of appearances doesn’t get born here by the mental trouble of the characters but from the chaos that is produced from the world and its new technologies that by systematically passing us through constant and multiple screens obliterates all the relationships to the réel and with things. In Mission: Impossible de Palma marks the ultimate stage in the logic of a materialist-capitalistic occidental world: a universe that is totally mechanized where sensations and corporeal jouissances are excluded and everything is a commodity object. There are no longer subjects. The film describes a new world where images are the masters and reign and where the human being has no place. Man is only now a toy. A pawn that is disposed of by way of believing they have the power of the mise en scène. How to keep that which circulates all the time and which metamorphoses constantly? As each image is independent and unseizable with its essence escaping itself and all fixity of its enterprise, even though for a short instant it can be looked at, but with the majority that the confirmation is that all pretention to hold the mise en scène is vain and ephemeral… From Ethan to Phelps all of the way to Kittridge, the manipulating man is called to then be manipulated. Each one is suddenly in the flux of interchangeable images and this is the power of all of the mise en scène that vanishes from itself, trapped in the game of farces and catches, with the spider web of this world of images weaved to trap everything that exists… Lost in the multitude of fluxes of this universe of images man is now just a movement and his body an interchangeable vehicle. Reduced to the state of an object, of a merchandise that moves around just like capital and information in a perfect world without any flesh… The final scene on the Euro-train reworks then through pushing it all of the way into excess the plane scene in Hithcock’s North by Northwest, which the film references many times: taking an element of the réel (here the train; there, the plane) and utilizing all of its possible imaginary possibilities to turn this scene from realistic into a oneiric delirium and with a plasticity that soaks up all of the resources of the location… More bitter and pessimist then it appears, Mission: Impossible as it was made by Brian de Palma proves that he’s the veritable analyst of the mutations of our society and of a civilization of images and technology.
Iannis Katsahnias, Le monde-regard de Brian de Palma.
At the beginning, there’s an eye. The eye of the dead fish of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower in Psycho: a guardian image of the tomb (guardian of the suppression for Hitchcock) and of its opening itself (authorizing the luminous return of repression for Brian de Palma). An attractive image becoming worrisome and occupying even an extreme rank of horror: the eye of consciousness. As Bataille wrote, “There seems, in fact, impossible as subject for the eye to pronounce any other word than that of seduction. Nothing is more attractive in the body of animals and of humans. But the extreme seduction is probably at its limits that of horror.” In the cinema of de Palma, the open eye of death successfully becomes a cannibal sweet (the eye of the Phantom/William Finley leaving his orbit in Phantom of the Paradise), telepathic (the phosphorescent blue eyes with extra-lucid power by the maleficent Gillian/Amy Irving in The Fury). In Mission: Impossible, the eye has become a camera in a world that is reigned by gazes… Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) is moving, undulating, and unseizable as she risks in each instant to loose herself and Ethan with her. One must perhaps have to go as far back as Otto Preminger’s Laura to re-find such a representation of the phantasm which has become a ghost… On this double-gaze and gaze of objects, in the hands of de Palma the Visco glasses are not just a simple gadget but have become an instrument that establishes a dialectic of the gaze which pushes it to its limit and finishes by manipulating the gaze of the character just as well as that of the spectator… Just like Oedipus, Ethan Hunt goes towards the search of the guilty, searching for the person who put together this machination that accused him of being the mole. Like Oedipus, the guilty person is not him. In Oedipus the King, who is guilty? Oedipus because he killed his father and had sex with his mother? No. The guilty are the parents who abandoned him on the mountain to save their own skin because an oracle predicted that he would do exactly that… There is the computer password ‘job 314’… So when Ethan sees in the light ‘job’ he takes it for its biblical meaning. The reference is to the Book of Job and more precisely to chapter 3 (Curses the Day) and verse 14 (‘with kings and rulers of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins’). In light of the image of Job, Ethan is a tragic hero betrayed by his father… One must here talk about Tom Cruise, and to say how great his character adapts with each gesture, each movement of his body, how his mourning anticipates the problems of an orphan forced to patricide and how all of this is on his emancipated face… At the end of the film, we re-find Ethan Hunt slumped in his chair on a plane with an unknown destination. He seems out of it. At this moment here, Ethan now takes the place of the spectator who has experienced two hours of jerky jouissance made up of fluxes and refluxes, of continued slides, suspense, organismic moments, brief moments of repose, and vertiginous mountains and peaks. Mission: Impossible is filled with movements of jouissance that go up and moves around and give the illusion of bliss, extinguishment and then regret.
Thierry Jousse, Mission: Impossible de la série au film.
Mission: Impossible is without a doubt the most theoretical television series in the history of television… We’re somewhere between John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate and Hitchcock’s Topaz… What interested de Palma in all of this is its graphic vision and the flattening of its characters. Confined by the television and comic book influences, he would add an extra dimension that is properly ghostly. It’s just like the navigating of another world, somewhere between life and death.

Snake Eyes (Cahiers, November 1998, N.529), w/ Cahiers Critiques Jouissance de l’oeil by Emmanuel Burdeau and a Dossier Brian de Palma, Le Master Mind essay by Stéphane Delorme.

Emmanuel Burdeau, Jouissance de l’oeil.
Lies, betrayal, manipulation. Cameras, headsets, recordings. Virtuosity, masterfulness, mise en scène. Gazes, eyes, points of views. Snake Eyes possesses all that fans of Brian de Palma would expect from him… Snake Eyes continues the project of  Mission: Impossible but by radicalizing it in two different ways. By the choice of staying in one unique location and by its opening with a long-take of nearly fifteen minutes (everything leading up to the bell going off near the end of the match), that the whole rest of the film will deconstruct and analyze to the point that it will extract, easily and with force, the final word on what exactly happened. As long as the expression has a meaning, Snake Eyes is in fact a theoretical film. What de Palma looses, not necessarily in pleasure, is emotion, at least in relation to his two previous films, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible, but which he gains in intellectual power, through its theoretical seduction. Snake Eyes, without being the best de Palma, is still a splendid film… For once, the cinéaste is interested less in a figure whose trajectory coincides with becoming a master or metteur en scène (Mission: Impossible), then in a silent stoic man and his volition to know. So the question that is asked, not that which is false (everything or nearly, as we know) but what exactly is true for de Palma? What exactly is the truth for him? What exactly are the conditions for there to be truths in the age of the images? Another way to ask it: What does it mean to be today a cinéaste of images – as would say Bazin – a cinéaste that believes in the power of images? We can count in the film three images, no more, then exactly three images that do not lie, which is verified without a doubt by multiple visions of the film… This includes Tyler reawakening and opening his eyes after he faked his KO with the truth being their shared gaze. ‘I see that you’re watching me.’ This is the first sign that for de Palma that truth (and also lies) emerge from an eye (or eyes) and nothing other then this. Tyler who is supposed to be KO had his eyes open and this is the only critique we can make of him… The second truth is the totally ignored camera with the name the zero gravity flying eye with its blue eye. It’s a blue color that serves as the lost background of television studios, that of an anonymous eye, with no end, empty, a zero – an eye, period. We can believe it because it’s virgin, it doesn’t belong to anybody. The images that it shows, the Anglo-Saxon call them a nobody’s shot. In opposition to the flash-backs that have a subjective perspective (the point of view of Tyler, of Dunne, of Julia) that can’t be credible as they cannot not be deceitful and boring for the simple reason that they attempt to bring a truth from a particular person. While in answer to the question, ‘what exactly happened during the match?’, the answer, for it to be satisfactory, has to emerge from the interior of the situation itself. An image in the past-tense – a flash-back – can then have meaning to explain and elucidate more so than an image in the present which is surely suspect. Or justly, Snake eyes requires these multiple perspectives… The villain is identified around the halfway mark of the film (by de Palma himself, in a direct shot, without any intermediary from other point of views) but this is not enough as there remains to produce the proof of his culpability in and by an image. The grandiose dénouement cherished by de Palma (which recalls Raising Cain) brings together the complexity of their logistics. Its machinery is heavy – in occurrence, piece by piece, there’s a heavy storm and lightning, a huge globe, a television team, a police car, and then Santoro, Dunne and Julia –, just like how it’s heavy (difficult, and laborious) the advent of the proof-image where culpability ceases to be an intuition or an knowledge that materializes to become evidence. What’s really important to find the truth is nothing more then the necessary detours to the production of these good images (the third and last) where the camera and gun are revealed and where Dunne is found definitively in the frame; the death is confirmed as it was recorded by this gaze. The gaze is then totally the truth, a true image absorbed entirely in the act of showing, it’s a pure revelation (it reveals only itself) – though what’s really there to see are eyes looking at other eyes, that the eye that’s looking is an abyss, and which by looking at them it signifies your death… An (important) cinéaste who persists to believe in images. De Palma is someone that engages with resolving to see and know, to identify absolutely with others, to leave to coincide with the confession that there is no truth other than the act of seeing (or of being seen). Aside from this evidence, which it revives in extremis, there is no evidence except for this evidence. The truth can only come from this condition of an extraction from the original (spatial, personal)… We hadn’t forgotten what was Hitchcock’s task as he was addicted to the robes of appearances (the cigarette that lights up in the middle of night in Rear Window) had already switched the gaze in the right direction before a film like North by Northwest (where can be found, already, the function of the lure of the color red) and Vertigo doesn’t separate the eye from intelligence. About the two section in Vertigo, Claude Ollier justly wrote that, ‘It’s precisely through the spatial localization shared by the two events which are visually identical, but rationally divergent, where the trouble is born,’ a phrase that applies marvelously to Snake Eyes, where every shot is in a way a superimposition of two scenes pulled from the two parts of the Hitchcock film. From one cinéaste to the other one, what has changed (what is aggravated) is the manner of how the world is established by themselves through a significant organization of appearances where between seeing and reading that the interval continues to expand… Snake Eyes moves through in a Hitchcock-like manner from the general to the specific and through continuity to discontinuity from the transparency of the opening long-take to its later montage to its dénouement. Once there was only one camera but now there are five-hundred (that of the surveillance dispositif). Exit the one grand hall that was undividable, here are now hallways, hotel rooms, compartments, cells and other rooms – we see that Snake Eyes is not too far from the experimental documentary on insects that de Palma declared, not without some sincerity, wanting to direct after Mission: Impossible… The program is the following: first off to brake up the montage of the world, the immanent montage of the scene (what is hidden behind the dozen split-screens) and then to substitute his own montage, his own split-screens. So then there is the fallacious continuity which lives out the productive discontinuity of the truth. Obligatory montage, if you like. A way to say that a proof isn’t anything to dispose off of the surface of things and that you just pick up: it’s something that is fabricated. A way also for de Palma to be loyal but not to the Mabuse of Lang but to the Touch of Evil of Welles… A faster eroticism (and game, naturally) – but is virtuosity nothing other then the eroticization of the force of the masterfulness and speed? Ubiquity, metamorphoses and frankly steeping through the spaces and frontiers with whispers and long distance contact when it’s with the good usage of technology like it is here with Santoro. The cinema of de Palma has touched upon an enchantment, towards a magic that to his eyes is defined maybe like the detained power by the elected, those that live in the space without ever adhering completely to it – who fly from frame to frame. De Palma loves technology, he thinks with it, which explains his taste for the split-screen, which he remains to this day the best practitioner of and which he proves quite readily. This fact again makes him closer to Welles a million more times then to Lang… With de Palma what is definitively beautiful is that there can’t be a stunning cinematography without a theoretical reflection, which is a major proponent of his operations. We experience a jouissance the same way that we think: with our eyes.
Stéphane Delorme, A maintes reprises.
With de Palma, there is no outside. We are immediately in a space circumscribed that needs to be surveyed, do a detailed analysis. There is always enough to see on the inside so that we do not feel an urge to go look elsewhere. As a grand obsessional, de Palma inscribes the infinite inside. Carrie, with her murderous gaze, violently shuts all of the doors of the hall to work in the pieces of the interior, in grids, to analyze and massacre everything that moves. The same kind of minutia, the same kind of fury with de Palma: to install himself within a scene, to examine it in detail, multiply the angles, the tracks, and the motifs. Then to disfigure, combine, dilate. To disseminate, essentially. This dissemination of the scene has for a name film. Snake Eyes, like for the majority of de Palma’s films reposes on the reprisal of an inaugural scene… The filmic unity for de Palma isn’t an image nor a shot but the scene. All of de Palma’s films circle around one single scene: the ball in Carrie, the pursuit outside of the institute in The Fury, the elevator in Dressed to Kill. The different demarcations (slow-motion, the split-screens, the false connections, or, in Snake Eyes, the long-take) make these scenes a detachable autonomous piece. The scenes are their own matrixes. They intervene at strategic moments: at the beginning (which is normal, since it’s what kicks starts the film) or elsewhere. It’s this scene that sets off the images; it’s what projects them. It is a reservoir of images and motifs which the films voluntarily rely on and extracts… If de Palma is an important cinéaste then it’s partly because he takes really seriously the principal of the reprisal: de Palma cites Hitchcockian scenes not to perform an eye-wink to the audience but to work in the mode of the analysis or of the anamorphosis. The analysis deconstructs the scene by multiplying it into fragments that afterwards can be composed or combined a totally different way: so that with each reprisal of the shower scene from Psycho, de Palma reveals a new detail from the original scene to make it the center of this new composition (the whiteness in Carrie, the hand in Dressed to Kill, the scream in Blow Out). The anamorphosis is a procedure that is less maniacal, more obsessional, that doesn’t duplicate the scene but elongates it, deforms it, all the while rendering it monstrous. So the kiss scene from Vertigo in Body Double or the scene in the museum from Vertigo in Dressed to Kill. The scene, just like a snake, deploys its orbs, unwraps, and unfolds to fascinate the spectator… His second model is that of symmetry: the reprisal is no longer the unfolding of the potentiality of the infinities of a scene but a folding of its effective content. Mission: Impossible and Snake Eyes reveals this model. As they progress by returning and inversing the origins of their images. The stakes are no longer what’s possible but the réel; the apparition of a system of opposing structures between the visible and the invisible, between what’s shown and the outside-of-the-frame, the metteur en scène and the actor. The reprisal is no longer the jouissance multiplication of the solutions of readings but the search for what really happened… This process of retuning to the image surely recalls the savage tactics of Dario Argento whose giallos (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red) rests on the painful search for the missing image: it’s before anything else a work on oneself, on one’s memory, that the character may be able to revive the image. The origins of this type of reconstitution is evidently Antonioni’s Blow Up which used the technique (enlarging, cutting up, montage) to find the missing image… In the search for the real image, which seems like since Mission: Impossible has become his obsession, de Palma has abandoned his maniériste vein which found its peak in Raising Cain. For the maniérist, no particular angle of vision is privileged: the world of images leaves no room for any truths. Each version has its own weight, that of its evanescence. An image doesn’t kill, as it always reunites, haunted by the characters that are only ever interchangeable apparitions: the reality unfolds in a game of infinite substitutions. We can regret that de Palma, in his diptych Mission: Impossible/Snake Eyes, has abandoned this vertiginous game to replace it with this investigation where the truth is rendered naked. In these two films, the (pedagogic) preoccupation is the same: one must learn how to look, one must discover the contre-champs, that is to say the space of the metteur en scène to then become the metteur en scène in one’s own right… Snake Eyes is a film about hubris: Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) takes himself to be a god (‘I am the king’ he declares in front of a delirious crowd). Then it’s normal that the real gods would punish him. Rick Santoro is a Greek hero in a Hawaiian shirt, a mixture between Prometheus and Oedipus: dressed in his snake skin, just like David Lynch’s sailor, he defies the Olympian gods, then he creeps, humiliated, blind, pulled along like a marionette. Already, Courtland (Obsession) was inflated by pride to reach the beyond. One does not play at the expense to just play with the gods as they are installed. One must inflate the scene up to the point that it explodes (to blow out) to deflate the self-satisfaction of little boys that pretend to be men. To pierce the skin of the frog that believes he’s bigger then cattle. For this, nothing other then a good point that’s really sharp… The scene for de Palma has a really precise sense: it abolishes itself in its final point. The point is the venomous injection that congeals the scene. It’s a gunshot, a cry and a flood of blood (the beginning of Carrie). The art of the point is not only a visual rhetorical figure: the point is materialized, disseminated a little everywhere, in the corners and hidden, like an advance taste of the of the sounds before the cymbals finale. In Raising Cain, the grand final scene, maybe the summit of de Palma’s oeuvre, unfolds around the menace of a point: that of the grand clock, disposed meticulously in the frame during the chase for Jack… There are signs that announce the point but then how to see them? If the first scene in Snake Eyes resembles a lot the grand scene in the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much, though it does not obey any of the Hithcockian principals of suspense that renders immediately all of the signs readable for the spectator. In the Hitchcock film, the spectator knows that in a precise instant (the striking of the cymbals, the shot will go off). In Snake Eyes, there are so many signs, but they are not referential during the first vision. How to know that the signal for the gun shot, this time here, will be during the fall of the boxer? No suspense: but instead, the surprise of the point, that which penetrates through the screen… The art of the point possesses equally its limits. The long-take that concludes the film like a loop puts into place workers who are pursuing their work in front of a casino. It finishes with an extreme close-up of a man’s hand. It’s a shot that’s absolutely unexpected (the credits are rolling) that surprises the spectator who believed that he’s already seen it all. It’s a admirable shot where de Palma simply films the work, in an hors-film that opens the oeuvre to the outside world. The hand that caresses the stone column and the camera that slowly approaches up to the point of filling the screen. At the instant where the hand pulls back it reveals the red stone that’s cemented into the column. De Palma has just revealed his final arrow. But there’s a deception: was he only filming this hand because the ruby was hiding behind it? This ruby (but do we even remember it?) belongs to the young redheaded women who Dunne killed. The meaning is clear: casinos are built over dead bodies. But the surprise of the ruby says something else: we furtively think of the last shot of Hitchcock’s Family Plot, that of a hidden diamond in a chandelier, which played like a metaphor for the oeuvre. But would the metaphor not be better if the hand stayed on top of it? The discourse (‘beware of appearances’) finally makes one weary. We would prefer if de Palma would remain on the surface, either to multiply the power of its images (Raising Cain) or either to be interested to get closer to its raw material (the body or the stone). But of course, there finally remains enormous and surprising hand but the smaller brilliant ruby pierces the mystery of its presence. An awkward revelation that risks to distract from the real splendor of Snake Eyes.

No comments: