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Brian De Palma

by H. K. ‡
Introduction to Brian De Palma Interview with De Palma by Daniel Kasman “I don’t think I do referencing, I use ideas which I think are effective in this particular piece at the moment. If they’ve been used before, fine. I mean, who cares? To me, it’s all grammar. If I’ve got that word available and it was used before and if I can use it again more effectively for my piece – why not? It’s the history of art from the beginning of time. Why do you think painters still paint Chartres Cathedral? Do you think they should be painting some rock in a garden? But they have this incredible architectural thing in front of them! Are they copying, are… Read more

Introduction to Brian De Palma

Interview with De Palma by Daniel Kasman

“I don’t think I do referencing, I use ideas which I think are effective in this particular piece at the moment. If they’ve been used before, fine. I mean, who cares? To me, it’s all grammar. If I’ve got that word available and it was used before and if I can use it again more effectively for my piece – why not? It’s the history of art from the beginning of time. Why do you think painters still paint Chartres Cathedral? Do you think they should be painting some rock in a garden? But they have this incredible architectural thing in front of them! Are they copying, are they simulating it? Well, maybe they have a different interpretation of the piece of art that’s in front of them. I mean, how unusual…”

I haven’t seen many of his shorts because they’re not available anywhere as far as I can tell. (If anyone knows where I can find them I would be forever grateful.)

De Palma wrote the text at the beginning of Star Wars.

The Masterworks

Carlito’s Way – Style and substance here are flawlessly intertwined as De Palma juggles intimate melodrama and gangster saga – by way of horror – in this shockingly emotional epic. Ineffectual men try futilely to fight against the circumstances of their past and present, while each action they take brings death closer. There is a mastery of form here so gripping that it’s occasionally easy to overlook the fact that the film tackles some of humankind’s biggest questions about love, intentions and redemption. A full-blown masterpiece and one of the finest and most complex films ever made. (Thank Jack.)

Raising Cain – De Palma probes the borders of reality the pinnacle of his career as a horror director. The camera becomes the eye of a pathological liar as we plunge into the depraved depths of the human mind where sex, family, violence, work and revenge become one indivisible monster which is far too great for any person to conquer. But Dmetri Kakmi already said it better than I could anyway, so check him out.

Mission to Mars – De Palma’s baroque sci-fi masterpiece is his most balletic, sensitive and personal work. The film’s idyllic wonder may give it a campy or disingenuous sheen, but it belies a great admiration for knowledge and a greater faith that the mysteries of the universe will surpass our most outlandish imaginings. The film is imbued with a sense of childlike reverence for exploration that does not frequently grace the silver screen. Here we see De Palma paying homage to science, Hollywood and his own boyhood simultaneously and the results are staggering.

Blow Out – The relationship between America’s political paranoia and media obsession has never been explored in such a startling or perceptive manner. Through a maze of wires, lies, screens and fear, the apex of our worst nightmare becomes the missing piece for a film so bad you might not even admit to having seen it. De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up takes its predecessor’s ideas to a completely different realm and the relationship between the two is limited to the basic plot structure and some themes. Though it is brilliant as a political thriller, a social satire and a horror film, above all else it is a great tragedy, both personal and societal.

Phantom of the Paradise – The colors, both beautiful and grotesque, the songs and a delightful leading performances (especially William Finley’s) make this a wonderful spectacle. Considering how strange this film is, it’s a surprisingly personal work, with Winslow Leach as De Palma’s on screen representative as a loner who is misunderstood, abused and exploited. De Palma’s image of himself may not be entirely accurate – I don’t know him so of course I can’t say – but the way De Palma puts across his inner most feelings while never succumbing to being self-serious is proof of a great cinematic talent. Beyond this, De Palma’s examination of American cultural death worship is both brilliantly satirical and unnervingly prophetic, given its gradual increase during the nearly 40 years since the film’s release. (The Psycho reference is hilarious.)

Hi, Mom! – A milestone of the New Hollywood movement because of its reliance on and expansion of Nouvelle Vague styles. Hilarious episodic chronicle of a man (Robert DeNiro as Jon Rubin) just returned from Vietnam trying to find his place in the world and failing because he is hopelessly out of touch with society even at its fringes. In this way character is very similar to Travis Bickle, and the film can be seen as a sort of precursor to Taxi Driver. The “Be Black, Baby” segment is a sharp, smart and challenging bit of film making, De Palma has said that it was the single most important thing he’s ever done, and here it is:

Dressed to Kill – De Palma’s directorial powers are at their strongest as he masterfully alternates between suspenseful and sexy in his most straightforward horror film. A fair amount of clunky dialogue is more than compensated for by high tension, dazzling camera work and excellent performances. (Note: Angie Dickinson’s use of a stand in for the shower scene is where De Palma got the idea to make Body Double.)

Redacted – Jarringly effective war chronicle which achieves an authenticity and dismissal of Hollywood tropes unprecedented in De Palma’s work. That he has made a film such as this – that is radically different stylistically while approaching the same filmic intentions of capturing fragmentation and subjectivity – so late in his career is proof of his brilliance and his artistic elasticity. Despite the rape which was advertised as being central to the narrative, there is essentially no plot, which aids immensely in delivering the ultimate impact. Accusations of treason and the critical backlash against the movie are indicative of the very self-righteousness which is condemned. Far from dehumanizing U.S. troops, Redacted provides a fully rounded view of the military to show that it cannot be categorically dismissed or praised. Contrary to popular opinion and official policy, the soldiers too have hearts and minds.

Near Great

Sisters – De Palma’s first successful horror film is extremely suspenseful with all of his stylistic flair in full effect and aided in large part by Bernard Hermann’s chilling score. Very important in De Palma’s career, marking his full transition from comedy to horror.

The Black Dahlia – The plot holes and characters’ erratic behavior make sense in light of the confusion and frustration surrounding the real life event. To expect a straightforward narrative with all loose ends tied up from an unsolved mystery is unreasonable. What made it to the screen is an exploration of the depths of the human soul, both good and evil. As usual in De Palma films, there is plenty here for those willing to see it. (Thanks again Jack.)

Snake Eyes – Another fascinating study of the cross section between the media, mass hysteria and national and personal identities. Brilliant camera work, Nicholas Cage at his best and the Eye in the Sky as a perfect justification of the paranoia present throughout most of his work.

Obsession – This is an especially strange film both for its high melodrama and an aesthetic approach atypical for De Palma, perhaps a sign of the influence of screenwriter Paul Schrader. The film is a transitional moment for De Palma as it marks the end of his early period. It is telling that the work which most fully embraces the language of Old Hollywood is also the closing chapter to the most eclectic and experimental phase in his development.

Far Above Average

Greetings – Smart, entertaining, subversive comedy with De Niro’s “Peep Art” as a stand out, especially as it comes full circle at the end of the film. Sequel: Hi, Mom!

Carrie – Solid horror movie and the most successful Stephen King adaptation I’ve seen.

Woton’s Wake – Outlandish and mostly incomprehensible. Just enjoy the garish sets and William Finley’s delightfully bizarre performance.

Body Double – Sleazy, awkward mishmash of Vertigo and Rear Window. There’s enough flashes of brilliance to make it enjoyable and worth watching, but it’s frustratingly uneven. It was the subject of a fascinating, if somewhat condescending, study entitled Double DePalma (Susan Dworkin, 1984). As a side note, Body Double is the favorite movie of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho.

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Another overlooked gem of visual storytelling in which De Palma revisits one of his favorite themes: the power the media holds over both individual people and society at large. Masterful direction throughout, not the least of which is the opening tracking shot.

Mission Impossible: A thoroughly enjoyable action yarn with much to say about the omnipresence of the media and the nature of identity in the postmodern world. Despite the obvious hyperbole, Ethan struggles with the same difficulties as everyone else. De Palma’s humanity shines through the glitz and glamor.


The Untouchables – De Palma’s direction matches the finesse and energy of David Mamet’s script, and his horror sensibilities work very well in this straightforward crime drama. High quality entertainment and a seemingly perfect recreation of the 1930s.

Scarface – De Palma’s epic tale of the “losers” of life and how they fit into the American Dream is a massively (and curiously) misunderstood movie. Tony may be the most tragic of all of De Palma’s hopeless, childish and misguided male protagonists – he’s certainly the most delusional – while those orbiting him are increasingly damaged by his misery. Unfortunately this semi-companion piece to Blow Out at times wallows in the excess it condemns, but on the whole De Palma’s integration of horror and melodrama is a fine vehicle for Stone’s cynicism, making for a fascinating film.

Femme Fatale – Among De Palma’s finest visual storytelling and his most stunning use of split screen, but the ending is irritating.

Wise Guys – A nice, if not entirely successful, change of pace for De Palma. It’s an upbeat black comedy about two middle age morons who rarely do anything right. It’s fun to watch all these actors in slapstick roles, but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who has a problem with “pointless” movies.

Get to Know Your Rabbit – Surreal, delirious, and often irritating. It is unfortunate that this oddity was forgotten because it is one of De Palma’s most condemning criticisms of consumerism and conformity. Orson Welles in a memorable role and Tom Smothers are both highly entertaining.

Casualties of War – Some great performances here, especially from Sean Penn, but it’s very manipulative and the ending is silly.

Home Movies – Curious, but not especially enjoyable or successful. Still, there are interesting points made on the media’s omnipresence and how it affects the American family. Probably for die hard De Palma fans only, though I’m not sure how many of those there are.

The Responsive Eye – Good but forgettable documentary short about an Op Art exhibit in New York. The discussion is an interesting one, more interesting than the art even, but runs its course rather quickly, making half hour length perfect. De Palma’s research for this documentary may have been the genesis for the “Peep Art” of Greetings and Hi, Mom!

Interesting Failures

Dionysus in ’69 – Excellent use of split-screen, but that’s about it. More time capsule than anything else, and once the initial novelty wears off about halfway through, it’s pretty boring.

Wedding Party – Significant for the sole reason of being the first film of both De Palma and De Niro. There is a reason it was not released for six years after it was filmed.

The Rest

The Fury – What can I say? Best head explosion ever.

Murder à la Mod – Very strange, off-putting movie which even De Palma was critical of – a rare occurrence in light of his extreme self confidence.

Planning on revisiting soon…
The Black Dahlia
The Fury
Home Movies
Wise Guys

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