{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Films of Brian De Palma

In a recent discussion, one of my friends told me that one is able to understand a piece of work, if he is able to answer all the "whys", and it should lead us to some universal truths. Although, it does make some sense, it seemed a bit simplistic and I was looking for something to counter this "why-why" theory, and it came in terms of Brian De Palma. In the world of De Palma, there are no universal whys to be logically or thematically answered, nothing is true, and something is always broken. The response of viewer is a mix of instant intuitive pleasure and an assured appreciation of the craft of the director. And the pleasures of De Palma films do not end here. They include the pleasure of being misled, the pleasure of being politically incorrect, the pleasure of totally abandoning or twisting or stylizing a film into what can be called "intellectual glamour".

I know, there is so much to write about his films, especially some specific scenes like the terrific parody of dating from Hi, Mom! or several staged deaths in The Fury or the shower scene beginning of Blow out or the cathotic character of Carrie's mother, which was both haunting and caricature. I am little confused how to sum up all the varied observations after seeing his films. One hopeless way is to go film by film and the other equally hopeless way is to go on with my favorite scenes or the themes or stylistic flourishes he usually works with, the things he observes - the doubles and the blondes, the identities and the twins, the split-screens and the split personalities, the obsessions and the phobias, the absurd and its images, the glamour and the gazes, and the gazed, the list goes on.

We know we will miss some points here or there, which are more important than the things that we discuss here but with all this in mind lets start to built a mosaic on an perfectly clean and unreal wall - like a projection screen, exactly like the character of Antonio Banderas does in Femme Fatale. To start take an object to be observed. A blond with perfect red lips and red nails should do, provided she looks made up, fragile and inviting at the same time, she is alone and taking all the attention, observed by some, gazed by the others. She looks as if in danger and it seems she has a secret, even if she has none. The background is either a cold Parisian street of Femme Fatale or the art museum of Dressed to Kill or the mall-with-big-elevators of Body Double. Of all the observers, there is one who really cares for her, without knowing anything about her. Turn his care into obsession and you are near that 'Vertigo' feeling, and then in a beautiful and technically intricate sequence, brutally kill the blonde giving a bloody homage to all those sick slasher films and let the observer obsess. Let him find more. Let him discover information and facts, visuals and sounds. Now to get the full mosaic, take many objects with several identities and many observers and let them observe and obsess and complete the mosaic.

Brain De Palma is nothing, if he is not excessive. One might successfully argue for a while that he does not have excess of ideas (some people claim that he borrows (or rather steals) them from Hitchcock and Godard, or even B-grade stuff), but he, undoubtedly, has excess of perspectives and thus identities for his characters, and he knows and shows that there might be still more vistas that he might not know or show. In Snake Eyes, the thematic idea of having several perspectives, gets translated to the technical idiom of having several cameras to capture 'all' in the boxing match where the murder takes place, thus making an impression of you-are-being-watched safety with technology playing superior, although De Palma is always aware that, like a noir hero, it is powerful yet flawed and like him or any other thing that collaborates with humans, it is destined to fall. He knows, if one misses even a single perspective, he can miss the whole truth. To get an analogy of perspective in his films, put holographic slides where each viewer sees a different superimposed picture, and then let them discuss and find out what they actually saw, gather the visual clues, figure out what is the truth, if any, and more importantly let them discover that they are missing some pieces and perspectives of the image.

Also, De Palma does not feel ashamed or shy to tailor the perspective as he wants to, there are blurs, wide shots, make ups, blocking things to 'create' that specific perspective, which in theory is still a valid perspective but the question is about the honesty of the 'made' perspective. De Palma perspective are as self-aware and self-reflexive as images can be. They might is purposefully made, but at the same time, show how images can be purposefully made, how it can be shown what someone wants to 'show' ( or in some cases "show off"), and how we see what we want to. The whole mastery of images in De Palma films, if at all try to make a single strong point that is about the dishonesty of images itself, especially the filmed images.

And that’s when we come to the most important feature of Brian De Palma films, artificiality and sometimes a perfection that borders on senseless artificiality and exuberant absurdity. There is artificiality in moments of love, leisure and murder, which prompts a normal viewer to casually comment, "there is something missing in the film", may be they miss the usual kicks they are used to or they refer to newbie-critic favorite question "what’s-the-use-of-it-all" rather than admitting "I don’t get it" ! If you look into his films from thematic point of view, then there is a murky road ahead or there is a delta or a river mouth. I mean to say, on surface, they have no theme and if looked into too deeply they have a handful. But I personally feel, this autopsy for thematic search is not a good way to see De Palma. De Palma is best seen, scene by scene, a scene is absorbed for intuitive pleasure (that may be guilty) and stored for contemplation later. This series of images might give a thematic integrity, but one should not care about that in De Palma's film. That’s usually is the onus of a film to reveal itself, sooner or later, not the viewer to extract it by force. One can be attentive at best, which De Palma films strictly demands for all its visual crosswords. Everything should mean something results in stupid searches and stupider answers like "there is something missing in the film”!

I know, I should hate a person's views if he says that he "enjoyed" the murder scene in Dressed to Kill, but it is exactly what I did. Murder is bad, but it looks good in De Palma's films. If he mixes a shower scene with the murder, which he frequently does, it becomes even better, a guilty pleasure. But what sets these scenes apart is the mastery with which they are crafted and executed which at times include sly parodies of genres in which he himself operates and even his own film (remember the brilliant opening sequence of Femme Fatale). Camera, with its glamorous composition and precise feline movements, becomes the star for the moment, you see the magic of editing and you realize that how things can be fabricated by that and witness that much talked about but rarely seen thing - style becoming substance. De Palma's films become great guide to deconstruct movie making, may be second only to Godard.

We have seen and we know that De Palma fails when he tries to solve a mystery in his films or try to give an ending. We do not expect these things from him. We expect being tricked, titillated but never totally fooled by some end result. I didn't like the end revelation of Dressed to Kill much, because, I think, making conclusions, doing any psychoanalysis, giving such simple answers is not the forte of Mr. De Palma. In contrast, I absolutely loved the end sequence of Body Double, which doesn't try to solve anything or give us any final answer, although viewer is free to infer things. That’s why, I guess, for me most of his film play the best for 3/4th of their running length, where we are left floating free in pool of perspectives and visual information, or an illusion or a dream which are played out with stylistic verity and exactitude. He is best in his artistic flourishes and thematic/genre homage, and above all in the creation of a brave film language that is both original and derivative, inviting and playing with misinterpretations but never fearing them.