Why I Can’t Love Brian De Palma (Though I’ve Always Wished I Could)

Brian De Palma

Back when I was a kid, and a lot more naïve about how the motion picture industry works, I had expectations of filmmakers that were completely unreasonable in their very reverence. If I saw a masterpiece, and then placed the person who directed it high atop my superstar pedestal of art heroes, I longed for him or her to go forward and make 10 or 20 more masterpieces (hey, why not!), and I always felt keenly disappointed if it didn’t work out that way. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that even a movie as enthralling and visionary and apparently brilliantly orchestrated as “The Godfather” or “Nashville” was, among other things, a kind of fantastic accident: a coming together of elements that even the director isn’t always (or ever) in full control of.

But when it came to the art heroes who let me down, no one threw me for a loop — and could keep throwing me — quite like Brian De Palma. I wrestled for years with the disappointment his movies provoked in me (though I do think a small handful of them, like “Scarface” and “The Untouchables,” are terrific). And that’s because in theory, they always sounded like so much fun! Elaborately clever meta-Hitchcock jungle gyms of pure escapism. I don’t think I fully made peace with the issue until a few days ago, actually, when I caught up with “De Palma,” the fascinating new documentary co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, in which the filmmaker sits down, with a twinkle in his eye, to lead us through the long and bumpy but mostly happy road of his career. Wherever you stand on De Palma, the movie is a highly engaging master class on what being a Hollywood filmmaker is really all about.

In 1976, the first time I saw “Carrie,” it was the most dramatic film experience of my life. The movie had the kind of impact on me that other people experienced with “The Exorcist” or “Jaws” — it made my head swivel around with fear and excitement, with the sheer cinematic fairy-tale pleasure of what I was seeing, and I lived inside the experience for months. It took over my very being. I, of course, went back and read the Stephen King novel on which “Carrie” was based, and saw that the film followed the book reasonably closely. Yet in no way did that detract, for me, from De Palma’s achievement. The movie as he directed it was a dream, a vision, a hallucination made real, from the poetic horror of that opening slow-motion sequence in the girls’ locker room (which seemed, at first, to be nakedly voyeuristic, though it was really quite the opposite, since the film invited such a powerful identification with Sissy Spacek’s Carrie that it effectively put you in the locker room right along with her) to the scenes between Carrie and her ragingly sensual evangelical mother that were like a fire-and-brimstone version of “The Glass Menagerie,” to the spangly pop rapture of the Cinderella-goes-to-the-prom plot to the drenching bloodbath that submerges the party in hell to the telekinetic nerd’s homicidal revenge that all added up to make “Carrie” the most primal movie ever made about American teenage life. My attitude toward De Palma became, in its way, quite simple: You are God! Now, please, give me more movies like that one!

I didn’t realize that De Palma was not only not God, but that he was, in fact, a kind of genius tinkerer, a director with scruffy counterculture roots who was basically a recovering ’50s science nerd. He envisioned filmmaking as a series of technical challenges to be solved. This was still the mid-’70s, when no one quite realized that the New Hollywood was over. De Palma had been washed ashore amid the same wave of young guns that brought Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg, and all five of them were famously friends with each other, and the other four certainly had a vision (Coppola the dark poet of the America dream-turned-nightmare, Scorsese the vérité rock & roller of street crime, Lucas the inventor/bard of pop-nostalgia culture, and Spielberg the wizard of the everyday fantastic who literally seemed to think with the camera). So it seemed only right to assume that De Palma had a vision, too.

One thing he definitely had — because it ran through so many of his films — was a series of interlocking obsessions: with Hitchcock, with the freedom and sleaze of the counterculture, with the voyeurism of image-making, with the JFK assassination and the whole secretive flavor of conspiracy. (“Carrie,” in its way, was a conspiracy movie.) It certainly felt like all that stuff added up to a vision, and when “The Fury,” De Palma’s first movie after “Carrie,” also featured a plot that spun around the stop-motion drama of the freak ailment/gift of telekinesis, that now seemed to be part of his vision too. Who was Brian De Palma? He was a scruffy voyeuristic Hitchcockian conspiracy buff who drenched love stories in blood and believed in the power of the id to move things! That seemed about as good a definition of a movie director as one needed.

It certainly was for Pauline Kael, the critic whose fervent obsession with De Palma became the lens through which a lot of people viewed him. After “Carrie,” I never really agreed with Kael about De Palma, yet his movies put her into such a responsive trance — and she wrote so entrancingly about them — that I always wished I could see a De Palma movie just the way Kael did: as a more “heightened” version of a Hitchcock thriller. But when I watched a film like “Dressed to Kill,” I experienced it as a Hitchcock pastiche. The luscious tracking-shot fulsomeness of the opening Museum of Modern Art pickup scene was like “Vertigo” on some very powerful downer drugs, and it was (for what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes) ravishing cinema…but it was the high point of the movie! The slasher in limp blonde hair and sunglasses made the film seem like a replay of “Psycho” starring Sandy Duncan, and what De Palma really seemed to be clueless about is that the cathartic shock effect of a killer brandishing a straight razor against a backdrop of staccato violins was no longer the stuff of artful suspense. It was the stuff of interchangeable mediocre slasher films that were feeding, parasitically, off the same “Psycho” aesthetic that he was.

In the opening moments of “De Palma,” De Palma talks about how Hitchcock first seized him, an anecdote that may reveal more about him than he knows. He recalls going to see “Vertigo” when it opened at Radio City Music Hall in 1958. He was 18 years old, and it hit him the same way that “Carrie” hit me: as a movie that blew away everything he had seen before. What spun his head around about “Vertigo,” in which James Stewart tries to turn a shop girl played by Kim Novak into the literal image of the woman he loved and lost (also played by Kim Novak), is that in De Palma’s eyes, it was a metaphor for what filmmakers do. They mold and shape what’s right in front of them until it matches the fantasy in their heads. This comparison, between the plot of “Vertigo” and what Hitchcock himself was up to as a filmmaker, has been noted before, but what’s striking is how front-and-center the Stewart/filmmaker parallel is in De Palma’s own experience of “Vertigo.” He says that this lends the movie a “Brechtian” dimension.

But I don’t think that’s how most people experience “Vertigo” — as a Brechtian metaphor for filmmaking. And while there’s nothing invalid about De Palma’s reading of the film, I think it accounts for the overwhelming difference between the kind of director Hitchcock was and the kind that De Palma turned out to be. Hitchcock, for all the macabre comedy of his public persona, was a dizzyingly romantic artist who, beneath his virtuosity, was often swooning; his films were fire-and-ice. De Palma, on the other hand, wasn’t heightening Hitchcock so much as adding a layer of ironic detachment to him, using cool camera movement to impersonate fire. I think that accounts for why the thrillers in which he recycles “Vertigo” (“Dressed to Kill,” “Body Double,” “Obsession”) never find an emotional grip — they’re larks of Brechtian menace. There’s a place for that in cinema, but “Carrie” is a Hitchcock film, and that’s because it’s the one De Palma film that really does swoon.

The reason I find all of this surprising after seeing “De Palma” is that De Palma himself, though he’s sometimes been described as a cold fish, comes off in the movie as a terrifically engaging person — a Teddy bear of sincerity, warm and funny and almost touchingly shy. The boy geek is still very much alive in him. It’s there in his earnestness, in the endearingly gawky way he punctuates sentences with “Holy mackerel!” His voice is reminiscent of that of the old Hollywood actor Howard Da Silva, and his eyes glisten with mischief and gleeful disbelief when he tells a story (and he’s got some great ones) about the insane demands of money and ego that he’s had to deal with as a filmmaker. Like when cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond blew his stack on the set of “Obsession” because Cliff Robertson, who was supposed to be pale with amour, insisted on wearing so much brown makeup that he could barely be lit.

There’s a special relish De Palma takes in the battle he had with the studio over the proposed budget for “Carrie.” They wanted him to do it for $1.6 million, and he insisted it would cost $1.8 million, a seemingly minor difference — today, that would be an executive producer’s hotel bill — that nearly derailed the picture, though De Palma was proved right (only after pretending to be wrong). He also tells a hilarious story about his clash with the screenwriter Robert Towne over the ending of “Mission: Impossible.” Towne had contempt for the idea that the climax should be a delirious action sequence, with helicopters swooping into tunnels, and the fact that De Palma thought otherwise says two things about him: that he knew how to survive in the franchise era (even though he ultimately sickened of it), and that if he’d had a little more of that Robert Towne gene, the narrative of an ambitious patchwork thriller like “Blow Out” (“Blow-Up” + “The Conversation” + Chappaquiddick + the Zapruder film + an AIP screamfest = who can buy this?) might have held a little more water.

It’s worth noting that De Palma likes “The Fury” a lot less than Pauline Kael did. He sees it as exactly the hit-or-miss trash heap it was. But then, whatever movie he’s talking about, his tone almost never varies. He views each one as a job that he tried to do well, and he’s stunningly modest about his success rate. With the sole exception of “Casualties of War,” which dealt with issues of Vietnam he clearly felt personally close to, De Palma almost never discusses his movies in terms of what the stories he was telling actually meant to him. Each one is a collection of challenges, a system to be solved, and he’s the puppetmaster/engineer. At the end of “De Palma,” he admits that he’s married to filmmaking, that it’s his true “wife.” And while that’s a familiar thing to hear about an artist, in De Palma’s case what he appears to be infatuated with is not the finished products so much as the process of filmmaking. That’s why he comes off as the sneaky version of a happy camper. He may be, by his own admission, a loner, but he’s been successful enough to live within the creation of his own gliding-camera, split-screen version of a miniature toy train set.

Maybe that’s why De Palma’s movies, with the exception of “Carrie,” have never swept me up in the way that I’ve always wanted them to. He’s trying to impart the same feeling to the audience that he had watching “Vertigo”: an identification with filmmaking as the supreme metaphor for passion. But the nature of that passion may be that even when you’re looking right at it, you’re locked outside of it. De Palma’s movies try to turn his filmmaking fever into yours. And how can that happen, when the obsession is all off-camera?

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  1. Blaine Turner says:

    Maybe you can’t love him because you haven’t seen the Phantom of the Paradise yet

  2. Archie S. Hitchcock says:

    You neglected to mention that DePalma is a satirist of the first order- link this with his beautifully crafted and subversive movies and the pieces all begin to fall into place. Of course his film output is spotty, but then consistency isn’t necessarily a component of any notable artists oeuvre.
    Now to critique the writer of the article on his work- on the whole I found your writing to be shoddy, shallow- the misguided and misinformed ramblings of a third rate fanboy.

  3. Tom Bradley says:

    My Favourite Director for so many reasons, just love his style, and ‘Carrie’ wow what a film, the acting from Spacek was second to none.

  4. Robert says:

    Recently The Metrograph here in NYC showed 28 of the 29 full length Brian De Palma films I had caught about half of them before, and looked forward to catching what I had not seen during this series. I also got to rewatch some of my faves, and even some that I did not like the first time around. While I agree that his movies can be wildly uneven, and that even among his fans there are huge debates as to what is or isn’t a classic, he is a far better director than you are giving him credit for. He has a visual style that is amazing, and has never been copied. He is the one director that has tried to take from the past and keep it fresh, without it seeming like a complete rip off (of course, some will argue that point). He could ride the line between technical prowess and art better than most of the others, when he was on point. Of course, when he isn’t, or when studios make his life miserable, well, his movies can be a disaster. He chose to work in areas where Spielberg and Lucas wouldn’t go, not just crime, but horror, sex, drugs, and nudity. No one of his peers took the chances he did, and he suffered for them. But we benefited from those risks, in more than one movie. 4 of his movies are in my all time Top 100. Another 3 are pretty damned good. Many others are fine passable movies. A few are absolutely terrible. The De Palma documentary made it even more clear how amazing he was at what he did, and I for one will be forever grateful for what he has done for the movies, and my enjoyment of them.

  5. Axe says:

    One thing not mentioned enough is how utterly terrible De Palma is with music score! He’s had some great song choices in certain films, but his score is ridiculously melodramatic to the point of farce at times! I mean it’s laughably bad. It’s like, “he cannot be serious” awful!
    He seems to not get that he has been perpetually stuck on the type of outdated movie score he dieted on as a kid. His film music was as outdated in 1980 as it is now. Again, he has had some great songs working beautifully but he simply doesn’t get film score. He way over scores everything to over-the-top levels!
    It’s kind of funny. He is a brilliant virtuoso visualist but just doesn’t get music or has very old fashioned bad taste that is incongruous with his state-of-the-art style and envelope pushing contemporary content.

  6. Axe says:

    Who has “art heroes” as a kid?!
    I was the same kind of kid and have “art heroes” now, but back then they were movie directors, movie stars, rock stars, etc. This is because back then we didn’t fully understand they are all artists. So are you actually saying you called them “art heroes”? Please.

  7. Axe says:

    This is very good. I am a De Palma fan, even met him once and he was not unfriendly at all but as distant and cold as his films tend to be. (then again celebrities mostly tend to be meeting strangers on the street) I would make one strident objection to this critic’s dissertation on the lack of internal romanticism in his work: “Carlito’s Way”.
    That movie is as romantically sweeping as it gets with the needed tragedy for such as well as all De Palma’s trademark style and bag of tricks. While “Scarface” is maybe the more popular epic classic and actually a higher level masterpiece if nothing else for Pacino’s performance, the difference is “Carlito’s Way” is a love story and emotionally pulls you in more profoundly than their other excellent collaboration.
    Otherwise I agree for the most part that his work has a distance and sometimes dissonant quality precisely because of what this critic here cites: he’s an artist whose work is very self conscious and calls attention to the craft rather than enveloping the audience. But what dazzling craft he has always displayed to the point of it all being worth it?
    If Hitchcock is Shakespeare or Rembrandt, then De Palma might be King or Warhol. Just saying.

    Besides the two great films above, I personally love “The Fury” (because it scared the s— out of me on TV as a kid!), “Body Double” (because it is an ingenious blending of “Rear Window” and “Vertigo”). I never loved as much some of his most popular outings including “The Untouchables”, “Carrie”, “Dressed to Kill”.

    One thing’s for sure, he has a very distinctive style as a movie artist. It works for him and against him… well just like many great directors. The ones with distinct style you spot immediately that is and out of great directors that’s maybe half of them? I’d say.

  8. Mark says:

    Sandy Duncan wasn’t in “Dressed to Kill”. Angie Dickinson was. Don’t writers do research anymore? Especially if you’re attempting to skewer someone with a long, noteworthy, and successful career.

  9. AD says:

    This piece would have carried more weight if written by anyone other than Owen Gleiberman, who for 20+ years wrote fluff for Entertainment Weekly and whose film reviews more often than not championed the most airheaded popcorn blockbuster fare.

  10. Bill.B. says:

    I don’t quite get all this new found respect for a director that was usually critically lambasted for copying others’ styles throughout his heyday. I guess if you live long enough everything is forgiven.

  11. Tony says:

    Gleiberman sports a nu-critical approach to a pioneer’s craft that is short on film history and long on pop consumerism. Even at a pure technical level, he bypasses De Palma’s command of film grammar. Ironically, like most nu-critics, he will champion true career pastiche in embracing the Tarantino pop confections. In order for film to be taken seriously, it must be written about by serious people. Anybody who diminishes Blow Out as some sort of derivative misfire but lavishes praise upon Pulp Fiction is in the wrong trade.

  12. I’ve always loved De Palma, but at times I feel like he’s bought into the talk of his own visual opulence. It can be incredible, but in an otherwise lacklustre picture it merely looks like he’s lost his sense of priority.

  13. harry georgatos says:

    A master visual planner with a subversive streak! A cross of Hitchcock and Goddard. BLOW OUT is his masterpiece with a twisted ending filled with soul. SCARFACE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FURY and CARLITO’S WAY are masterpieces! It’s time to bring De Palma back from within the cold and give him final cut with future films as to avoid the interfering of another MISSION TO MARS which is half a masterpiece and half nonsense. Looking forward to LIGHTS OUT described by De Palma as a cross between MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and WAIT UNTIL DARK.

  14. Ken says:

    “The Fury” has always been one of De Palma’s most grossly overlooked thrillers. It may be his most beautifully shot picture. “Carrie” of course is a classic. But it never would have achieved hit status if it hadn’t been for that bloody hand emerging out of the ground at the end. I saw the pic at a preview in Toronto…and that scene caused the loudest collective scream I’ve ever heard in a cinema. Reps from UA were on hand to gauge public reaction; they were $$$ beaming.

    • The Fury is silly, but a blast nevertheless. Carrie is a film I can watch over and over again, I do think it’s his absolute masterpiece. But I also love his Untouchables, Mission Impossible and Scarface. I guess that should be more than enough, but I agree with OG that his overall track record has disappointed me.

  15. Sexracist says:

    I just don’t understand De Palma. But Twister is a masterpiece

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