Monday, October 22, 2012

The Fakery of Brian de Palma: Truth Hinging Upon the Absurd

This is an edited version of my speech from this month’s edition of  the Toronto lecture series What We Talk About. Each month, three speakers are selected to talk about one theme, this month's being "fakes." The last event in this year's series is about Nemeses and will take place on Monday, November 5th.  – D.D.

What exactly does the word "fake" mean? The Merriam Webster defines fake as “a worthless imitation passed off as genuine,” and proposing synonyms like imposter and charlatan. These are the kind of adjectives that are often used to describe the American filmmaker Brian de Palma. Which makes him a great subject to discuss at length in this edition of What We Talk About When We Talk About "Fakes".

Before I go on and talk about De Palma and his relation to "fakes", let me give you some basic biographical information about him, which is relevant to better understand his films: he was born in Newark in 1940, and when he was young he excelled in his studies, especially in his science classes. His childhood was apparently traumatic: his father was a surgeon, and would take him to watch bloody operations. And his father was also philanderer, and after a young Brian caught him cheating (by spying on him and taking a picture), his parents would divorce. His mother, who used to be an opera singer, suffered from depression. His two older brothers, who were extremely bright, would get all of her attention, and she would ignore him making him feeling sad and lonely. De Palma would later on make a film Home Movies (1980), which would express a lot of his angry feelings towards his family.

De Palma’s most famous films are: Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Snake Eyes (1998). Though for cinephiles his cult reputation rests more so on Hi, Mom! (1970), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992), Femme Fatale (2002), Redacted (2007), and the more recent Passion (2012).

Of all the New Hollywood directors to emerge in the seventies – like Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Atlman, Friedkin, Coppola &c. – de Palma’s reputation might just be most disreputable. In his films people are drilled, slashed and chain-sawed, women undress, touch themselves, are in porn and so on. But nonetheless there is something really interesting which is going on in them, and which might be intrinsically linked to why their so disreputable.

But before I go on, how and why is de Palma a fake? The classic argument, via Andrew Sarris versus Pauline Kael, is that De Palma is simply derivative of Hitchcock - a second-rate suspense director who encapsulates the Regan era zeitgeist of style-over-substance. (Kael, otherwise, would argue, "He goes past Hitchcock's perversity into something gleefully kinky.") .

I would also argue that De Palma makes explicit what Hitchcock could only show implicitly due to the censorship of the Hays Code. If one looks at some of the pre-production stills from Hitchcock un-realized Kaleidoscope, which is about a necrophiliac serial killer in New York, it includes some of his most sexual and violent imagery: naked women, nudes in a park, bloody murders and so on. It is this Hitchcock and in this sickness, which De Palma would take to in extreme position in his films starting with Dressed to Kill.

So, yes, there are definitively elements of Hitchcock in his films, just as there are elements of Godard, Bunuel, Antonioni, Welles and Eisenstein - and he would probably be the first to admit it. But is De Palma's films just a matter of copy-and-pasting elements from the classics? Is he really no more than an avant-la-lettre Quentin Tarantino, picking-and-choosing what’s "cool" about the movies from the past and then trying to incorporate them in his own films? Is De Palma on a rampage that consists of constantly remaking Rear Window, Psycho and Vertigo over and over and over again?

Not only do his images seem rehashed, there is a lot in the stories themselves that are false. For example there are the three friends that exaggerate to try to avoid the Vietnam war draft in Greetings, the peeping-tom/activist who puts on a professional smile and pretends to be a bourgeois in Hi, Mom!, the fake movie-within-a-movie in Body Double, the “supposed” deaths in Wise Guys, the room which turns out to be a set and all of the masks in Mission: Impossible, the heist which turns out to be a ruse to betray Carlito in Carlito’s Way, the dream story of Femme Fatale, the fake friendship in Passion, and in Casualties of War when the Vietnamese woman who was raped and murdered, reappears - a la Vertigo - to give the soldier Erikkson some sort of closure: she does it wearing a fake prosthetic nose!

De Palma has also gone to do remakes of other films - official and not - and he has also gone to do remakes of some of his own films! His official remakes include Scarface being a loose remake of the old Howard Hawks film, The Untouchables as a re-boot of the old television show by the same name, Phantom of the Paradise is a psychedelic musical adaptation of Goethe's Faust, there is Dionysus in '69 which is a recording of a The Performance Group stage play, and Passion is a very close remake of Alain Corneau's Crime d'Amour. While the remakes of his own films and of certain key scenes includes the motif of voyeurism, which is that of a man looking from his room into the apartments across from him; which begins in Hi, Mom! and will re-appear in Body Double. There is the story of a lost lover who is haunting a man, which you can see in Obsession, Blow Out, Casualties of War, and Mission to Mars. And the only real difference between Casualties of War and Redacted is one is set in Vietnam while the other one takes place in Iraq.

It's relevant here to bring up a great new book on the director: Chris Dumas’ Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible (Intellect, 2012), which does more to argue for De Palma's place as a major filmmaker than anything that has come before it. One of his key points is in regards to De Palma’s attempt early on in his career to go from New York to Hollywood to make a “Hollywood” film, Get to Know Your Rabbit. Dumas thesis regarding it, is such, “his expulsion from Get to Know Your Rabbit is the traumatic moment at the core of the De Palma’s narrative, and everything that he does, every film he makes after this point […] will in some way refer back to this moment as a defining failure, a prima scene that must be endlessly replayed and that forms the horizon of what it is possible to represent.” From Get To Know Your Rabbit onward, Dumas argues, that De Palma pushes the limits in terms of peoples (i.e. the audience, critics) expectations of him. You want a Hitchcock film? Well here’s Dressed to Kill! You want gore? Well here’s Scarface! You want pornography? Well here’s Body Double!

What are we meant to take seriously in all of this? Dumas posits, is that, “we should take seriously the process by which we decide what to take seriously.”

It is relevant to bring up the political realities of the time to better understand De Palma’s movies. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November of 1963 is important – as political assassinations have appeared in a few of his films (Blow Out, Snake Eyes). Not only is the event itself important, but also how it is dealt with in the media, and what is the etiquette of filming after such an event. The Vietnam War is also very important (De Palma himself never went). You can get a stronger sense of this in De Palma’s early, Robert Kramer-like films.

The leftist historian Howard Zinn in his great book The Peoples History of The United States, writes about the eighties in terms of how, "Regan's victory, followed eight years later by the election of George Bush ('89), meant that another part of the Establishment, lacking even the faint liberalism of the Carter presidency, would be in charge. The policies would be more crass - cutting benefits to poor people, lowering taxes for the wealthy, increasing military budgets, filling the federal court system with conservative judges." While Dumas contextualizes the times and De Palma within the “the aspirations of the New Left and the continually evolving struggle for women’s rights.”

These historical factors provide the spirit of the times that flowed through and around De Palma’s films. And De Palma addresses them in a variety of ways: by being critical, ironic, cynical, satirical and so on. De Palma’s current marginality – his films are not huge commercial successes, and he isn’t a household name like Spielberg or Cameron – might be due to taking an unpopular stance towards a lot of these subjects (one just thinks of the anti-military message in Snake Eyes).

Perhaps this is why in the early twenty-first century his films seem as relevant as ever, which might just prove that he was ahead of his times. His all-seeing eye – like the camera in Snake Eyes, which photographed the true murder -, which watches all, is one of a critical position and skepticism. There is also a Brechtian quality to his images in that they heighten the viewer’s awareness that they are watching a movie, which also makes one more skeptical of what their seeing. For example, it is no coincidence that the second half of Body Double takes place in the porn industry: it’s actually a prescient signifier showing the viewer that images have become pornographized, and if one wants to move forward, one must acknowledge them as such.

But before I conclude I want to bring up the author David Foster Walace, and his important essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (1993), where in it he analyses television’s role in developing the mind-frame of post-50’s American writers. Foster Wallace brings up issues of medium-specificity, “what should literature be today?”, as well as tonal questions, “the nexus where television and fiction converse and consort is self-conscious irony.”

Though, the two points that I want to discuss in regards to De Palma is the idea of image-fiction, and what is the role of social protest in the arts. Foster Wallace describes the concept of image-fiction as, “The fiction of image is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose sort of accountability on a state of affairs.” And in response to television’s commercialization, Foster Wallace posits possible solution for creating works of social protest and that they are: 1) the one obvious option is for the fiction writer to become reactionary, fundamentalist; 2) adopt a somewhat more enlightened political conservatism that exempts the viewer and networks alike from any complicity in the bitter stasis of televisual culture; 3) finding a way to incorporate television’s pleasurable qualities into a work that tries to do something more meaningful.

These points illustrate the difficulty and complexity of the creative process after the televisual, and that one must position one-self within these positions. The current realities have multiplied a ten-fold, now in the second decade of the twenty-first century; when our culture seems addicted to new media and social-networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, iPhones and so on. One can no longer create and still be naïve about such matters. Though there are problems with this telemorphosis, which is going on, there are redeeming qualities to it. But I shouldn’t verge too off-topic.

Now when most of De Palma’s films are easily rentable, and that there is a democratization of film criticism– we no longer need the seal of approval from the gate-keepers of good taste - De Palma’s film have slowly found their champions and are being defended. The works themselves have outlasted the ideological battles of their initial release and stand on their own for their originality, audacity, and relevancy.

And if they offer a cynical viewpoint, it might have to something to do with the dark, and awkward times that we are living in. Dumas conclusion, which seems especially relevant, is that “in the end, there is nothing but the knowledge that one could have done better, but did not – and that, regardless of one’s success or failure in producing justice, the spectator will also fail.”  The reoccurring theme of De Palma’s films is that of a character who sees and is powerless to act in front of a bad situation. Watching is very unsettling. Which is something that is also very Hitchcockian.

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