Monday, October 15, 2012

But do you like him enough? (Brian De Palma, early on at Cahiers du Cinéma)

"Unlike Positif, Cahiers du Cinéma was a review by, about, and for the young. It is strange today to see the review attacked for being recondite, intellectual, and boring" writes Jean Douchet (French New Wave). While Serge Daney would probably add “There’s a great deaf dialogue between the U.S. and France concerning what’s good in American films. Cahiers has always defended the products which Hollywood wasn’t too proud of.” These two comments seem like a good place to start a discussion of Cahiers' relationship with the controversial filmmaker Brian de Palma.

When Cahiers returned to the format of a film-magazine, instead of being a political-activism journal, it needed to redefine its line of inquiry and find new directors that spoke through the gestes du cinéma. At first they were somewhat ambivalent towards de Palma. For example, in their first review of one of his films Bernard Boland writes about The Fury (April ’79, N.299): “Brian De Palma, one of the most energetic contemporary filmmakers, gifted at showing us the world of youth, with The Fury has become pessimistic about the future of our society.” This dismissive conclusion - Boland writes that the film has a "bad ending," too - would be a low point for de Palma at Cahiers before he would become one of their most defended filmmakers.

The following round-table, Douchet décortique De Palma (N.326), was the catalyst to take de Palma seriously at the magazine, which would last to the present day. This round-table, Douchet décortique, appeared in the newly inaugurated Le Journal des Cahiers du Cinema [the first one is from Jan. ’80 (N.312), and which goal was to “write journalism that corresponded to what’s actually going on.”], and it's place in the history of the magazine is important as the article would be brought up, and is most likely the reason for, how in their subsequent Made in USA issue (April ’82, N.334-335) Brian de Palma would be interviewed at length by Serge Daney and Jonathan Rosenbaum. 

As Daney would say, "il faux rester fidèle au visage de ce qui nous a un jour transi." In that case,  Douchet décortique is the Badiouian event that the magazine would remain loyal too.
Douchet décortique De Palma (Cahiers, July-August 1981, N.326)

22, April 1981. During the thirtieth anniversary of Cahiers and in front of a huge cake which is decorated like a scene from Rear Window, Jean Douchet, an old writer from the Cahiers Jaune days and current, attentive reader shares with us something that has been bothering him: do we like Brian de Palma enough? Have we seen Dressed to Kill? In light of this we have put together this round-table to talk more about him.

S.Daney: During the Cahiers party, you told us: Cahiers, it’s great and all, but you risk missing out on somewhere that I personally like a lot, and that’s Brian de Palma. Especially his latest film, Dressed to Kill. This sparked our interest, so Pascal and I went to go see this movie and evidently there is a lot to say. But before we go on, we would like that you go ahead and tell us what you like and think is important about it.
Jean Douchet: Brian de Palma isn’t someone that I know well. I was told that Phantom of the Paradise wasn’t that good, but by chance I went to go see The Fury for a review for the radio. I was stupefied by The Fury, so I went to go see some of his other movies. And I found them to be all fascinating, if only for how they literally rework Hitchcock, just like how Hitchcock would rework Lang's set-ups. This talent interested me to a great extent. So I then went to go see Dressed to Kill. Afterwards, I was equally intrigued by seeing so many bad reviews of the film just about everywhere: it isn’t possible that a film as evidently great as this one is so unanimously attacked. This is why I brought it up to you at the (memorable) Cahiers party.
P.Bonitzer: When you were telling us this, we could not help but think: well in that case, here goes! Because this is a worry for us, that of being cold about certain films, and on the contrary, that of overvaluing others that don’t deserve it. We totally agree with you about his capabilities, the virtuosity and reworking of an auteur like Hitchcock: it’s something that makes Brian de Palma especially singular and salient.
Jean Douchet: The citation-quality of his work is clear. In Dressed to Kill, the museum scene is right out of the museum and cemetery scene in Vertigo, and the whole film is based off of Psycho etc. Just like how Hitchcock presupposes a “Hitchcockian” audience, de Palma presupposes an audience that perfectly understands Hitchcock. Even deeper than this, what interests me about De Palma is how he works on the image. To only say it once – and which makes him a modern filmmaker – de Palma knows that the image is no longer pure. In the same way that he shows us this young girl who looks like a virgin just to brutally change our perception of her by showing her as a prostitute. Nobody is no longer that pure, especially the image. He will then show how corrupted images have gotten:  by showing us whole-heartedly what is “clean”, the normal American, this absolute desire for cleanliness will lead to the worst explosions of messiness and chaos. To use Hitchcock as a visual reference, for me, is a very a fascinating operation. And when we watch the movie, we see how far that he takes it, that de Palma works on the image in a very technologically sophisticated way by using the binocular lenses for shots – which decomposes the image by breaking it into two. It is ground breaking work and de Palma, in this sense, is one of the most formally inventive, and the one who asks, though very differently, the questions asked by Godard: what exactly is an image? If they are totally false and untrue, how far can we even take them into that territory?
P.Bonitzer: Wasn’t it for the same reasons that people refused the films of Hitchcock who worked in a very similar way: that is, of new forms but with very classic stories?
Jean Douchet: Exactly. De Palma works on the image purely like that of an object of publicity. Today, creating images without acknowledging that publicity exist, would be totally false. His films have a publicity photograph look - they are very clean. But at the same time, they contain this idea that, while acknowledging this, images still do have an explosive quality and which is inevitable – the explosion. The more that they get codified, stereotyped, made to look like publicity; more trouble will brew under the surface until it explodes. Explosions happen, especially in The Fury.
S.Daney: What’s also impressive, in regards to the Hitchcock/de Palma affiliation is Angie Dickinson, whose practically unrecognizable, and who changes from one scene to the next. We start to finally wonder if she isn’t the real transsexual of the film because, as with Caine, what we see is pretty much a travesty. While in the scene that opens the film, in the shower, where we go in a one-shot from the actresses face to her naked body – in a style which wouldn’t even be thinkable without Hitchcock – is troubling because it’s a famous actresses, a mask, a fake body, someone full of sexual desire etc. This troubling quality isn’t there with Hitchcock, as in Psycho, to the contrary, the shower scene is filmed in very close-shots, and without any nudity. In that case, isn’t there this other dimension:  de Palma is analyzing Hitchcock and rendering explicit what Hitchcock could only do implicitly? And while he’s at it, making the attacks on us a whole a lot more grizzly.
Jean Douchet: Yes. But even there the film returns back to discomfort and angst. There is a side to de Palma where he endlessly analyses Hitchcock. And this is exactly what also makes him Buñuelian. We realize, as time goes by, that there is actually a lot in common between Buñuel and Hitchcock, two filmmakers that were contemporaries while psychoanalysis was being developed and who both admired one another. And the re-apparition at the end of the film, heightening the fiction, making it about the impossibility of endings, is more aligned with Buñuel.
S.Daney: The nightmare never stops, and the same thing can be said about analysis.
Jean Douchet: There’s still more to say, like that of the social being. The social criticism is also more explicit in de Palma than in Hitchcock.
P.Bonitzer: That’s true. By the way, de Palma isn’t the only one to be haunted by the spirit of Hitchcock. There are others who share many affinities with him, on a superficial level and more like parodies (Mel Brooks, for example) but de Palma has kept what has been really important in the work of the British Hitchcock: and that is of the presence – in its triviality and massiveness – of people as social beings. But for de Palma, his films are set in New York. This is a real affiliation to Hitchcock, in opposition to, for example, Polanski, who is basically an academic filmmaker, and who doesn’t have any real connection to Hitchcock, and who for him there isn’t this formal preoccupation like there is for de Palma – there isn’t this uneasiness that is manifested formally, which fluctuates between the image and its gaze. This is what makes the young student in the film so interesting: Hitchcock in the electronic era, will create these youth that are gifted at creating the optical apparatus which will create new effects and who will be able to create these new forms of “voyeurism.”
Jean Douchet: This character in the film is of even more interest as they are the ones who are explaining how de Palma asks himself these questions of optical construction, by way of even showing within the film these image-making apparatuses.
S.Daney: In regards to this, we especially liked the sequence in the asylum, this dive that introduces what at first belonged to Hitchcock, the anamophosis process. One way to put in place a gaze like this, in this case, by showing us a stupid crowd and a maniac - who are themselves voyeurs who are watching a porno. This is profoundly enfeebling for the public, and this is also profoundly Hithcockian.
Discussion between Jean Douchet, Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Daney.
For anyone interested, I will be giving a talk The Fakery of Brian de Palma: Truth Hinging Upon the Absurd on Sunday October 21st, 7:30PM at the Drake Underground, as part of the reading series, What We Talk About. – D.D.

1 comment:

David D. said...

According to Adrian Martin, "btw you've missed an earlier essential piece, Pascal Kané's “Note sur le cinema de Brian de Palma”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 277 June 1977. I have often quoted this for its formulation of the role of the Other/Monster in De P, very subtle and useful."