Programmed by Dan Wang
Essay by Dan Wang
When Brian De Palma was to give a Q&A at Lincoln Center in Manhattan this summer (on the occasion of the wider release of his latest film, Passion), I asked the guy at the ticket office if he expected a long line. He doubted it. "De Palma isn't really relevant anymore," he said. I ended up sitting on the floor at the back of the hall behind a concrete pillar, despite showing up an hour and a half early; half the line was turned away.
One can see what he means. De Palma's favorite themes--dangerously erotic women, voyeurism, psychological horror--seem like the titillations of faded era. Compounding these obsessions is his insistence on an extremely smooth, controlled and virtuosic style that's hopelessly far from current anti-formalist vogues. Recent hits like Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) and Soderbergh's Side Effects (2014) tell De Palmian stories but dress them up in camera and video production styles currently in fashion (i.e. on YouTube); hence the rejection of De Palma's importance is also the rejection of a particular, classical way of making films.
De Palma is still relevant because his films remind us of the exhuberant joy of intelligent filmmaking--of an attitude to film worlds that Godard called, in reference to Hitchcock, the "control of the universe." Even his worst films have moments that leave one gasping at their beauty; his best ones feel like a confirmation of everything movies ought to be. In this partial retrospective (De Palma has an output that sprawls in genre and ambition of some thirty films), we feature a mix of De Palmas: movies of psychological horror (Sisters, Raising Cain), gangster films (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito's Way), a musical (Phantom of the Paradise) and, of course, classic, pervy, Hitchcockian, joyous De Palma (Hi, Mom!, Body Double, Femme Fatale).
Let me give the final word to Pauline Kael, famed New Yorker film critic, who appraised De Palma's place in the American filmmaking pantheon this way, in the early eighties: "De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies--that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision."
(Brian De Palma, 1983) · A remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks film, "Scarface" stars Al Pacino in one of his most iconic roles as Cuban refugee Tony Montana. It's a movie about addiction--not just to cocaine, but also to the trappings that a life in cocaine comes with. Pacino, along with co-stars Robert Loggia, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer, show us complex humans who've been through that wringer. Bleak and relentless, "Scarface" remains a seminal antihero film.
runtime: 170 min format: 35mm
(Brian De Palma, 1973) · "Sisters" mashes the first half of "Psycho" together with the second half of "Rear Window", and throws in a strangely calm passage on the Staten Island ferry that evokes "Vertigo". Part of the Hitchcock connection is explained by the Bernard Herrmann score, one of the last he completed before his death. But this tale of Siamese twins gone wrong is distinctly De Palma, from the brilliant use of split screen to William Finley's deliciously weird Emil.
runtime: 92 min format: 35mm
(Brian De Palma, 1974) · Swan (Paul Williams) is a gloriously campy record producer set on stealing music from the Phantom (William Finley), but a love triangle with a singer named Phoenix (Jessica Harper) alters both men's designs. Though its score was nominated for an Oscar, the film was a complete failure everywhere except Winnipeg, Canada, where it played in theaters for years. Today its reckless energy and rapturous hedonism secure it as a cult hit and a mesmerizing film.
runtime: 138 min format: DCP
(Brian De Palma, 1970) · A Vietnam vet (Robert De Niro, in one of his earliest roles) rents an apartment and becomes engrossed with videotaping his neighbors across the street. "Hi, Mom!" contains some of the zaniest and most politically unsettling filmmaking of De Palma's career – particularly the "Be Black, Baby!" sequence, in which a radical black theatre group paints its white audience in blackface and then proceeds to terrorize it. Must be seen to be believed.
runtime: 87 min format: 35mm
(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) · Before "Blow-Up" moved De Palma, "L'Avventura" won a prize at Cannes. People saw something new: framing a shot like composing a painting; objects as well as characters telling a story and provoking a mood; spontaneous, even random, dialogue. One can be impatient. One can also let go of expectations of quick excitement and tidy plot resolution, absorb the imagery and the sadness of the characters, turn inward, and reflect on a different movie experience.
runtime: 143 min format: 35mm
(Brian De Palma, 1992) · Starring John Lithgow in an unforgettable performance that whines, needles, menaces and downright terrifies, "Raising Cain" finds De Palma in his own mode of psychological horror. A wife (Lolita Davidovich) begins to suspect her husband's interest in their daughter is becoming a touch too clinical; then a series of upheavals lead up to a slow-mo sequence involving a falling child, a spear, and a gun that will leave your mouth hanging wide open.
runtime: 91 min format: 35mm
(Brian De Palma, 1984) · In "Body Double" De Palma lets Hitchcock's spell take him over completely. There is a man who spies on a woman through a telescope; he also follows her through town in a car, trying to assemble her secrets. But De Palma is more reflective about the nature of cinema, and he pushes Hitchcock's situations to new rapturous extremes, finding insane angles and distances (both far and very very near), swoops, zooms, dives. A rapturous ode to low taste.
runtime: 104 min format: DCP
(Brian De Palma, 1987) · Starring Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery (the latter in an Oscar-winning role), "The Untouchables" takes us back to the turbulent era of Prohibition, when Al Capone was the mayor of Chicago in everything but name. Once again, De Palma's heavy style divided critics; surely this comes to a head in the shootout at Union Station which references Eisenstein's Odessa Steps in a manner less serious than cheeky and even self-deprecating.
runtime: 119 min format: 35mm
(Brian De Palma, 1993) · Filmed on location in New York, "Carlito's Way" follows Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), a Puerto Rican ex-con who becomes hopelessly caught in the pull of the city's underworld even as he tries to muster up the strength to escape. Some of De Palma's most wonderful set pieces are here, along with a haunting score from Patrick Doyle. Despite initial mixed reviews, "Cahiers du Cinema" would come to name this picture one of the best films of the 90s.
runtime: 144 min format: 35mm
(Brian De Palma, 2002) · Beginning with a rapturous set piece at the Cannes Film Festival, and ending with a statement not only of cinematic aesthetics but also of ethics, "Femme Fatale" is De Palma's most ambitious, vexing, and confounding work. It is also beautiful, drawing from a more vibrant and painterly palette than earlier films. Starring Rebecca Romijn as a jewel thief and Antonio Banderas as an opportunistic photographer, this film calls to be seen and seen again.
runtime: 114 min format: 35mm