The third entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
There is a story of how Brian De Palma works with his film editors: he looks at what they have already done in assembling a scene, and then instructs them on how to improve it, to his precise specifications, by tapping out a particular beat: ‘1 … 2 … 3 … cut there!’ His work on cinematic form is rhythmic, musical—and always keyed to emotional, physical patterns of tension and relaxation. So he counts out the beats to draw all the elements of image and sound, gesture and architecture together, in a masterful choreography/orchestration of elements.
In approaching an audiovisual analysis of De Palma’s films (which we dearly love, and find inexhaustible as objects of study), we too faced the task of not merely enumerating the abundant motifs and structures in his work, but also bringing them together and drawing out their unfolding logic—unfolding both within each film, and across his whole career.
Many dedicated accounts of this director—from John Ashbrook’s breezy Pocket Essential guide Brian De Palma (2000) to the long, detailed entry in Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s and Bertrand Tavernier’s great 50 ans de cinéma américaine (1995)—proceed by listing recurring themes, situations, objects. A standard auteurist trope, entirely valid as a starting point, but one that—particularly in this case—can freeze or fixate the work of analysis.
Coursodon and Tavernier (to take the best of these synoptic discussions) offer a list of eight ‘motifs and figures that constitute this very particular universe’ created on film by De Palma. The eight motifs are: voyeurism; the double; the victim protagonist; innocents condemned, twinned with aborted rescue; the unprovable crime with a missing piece of evidence; freaks and manipulators; women, who are either bad mothers or prostitutes; and finally duplication, multiplication and mise en abyme (infinite mirroring). This is a perceptive and helpful list; we can find almost all of the eight items in certain, key De Palma films, such as Sisters (1973), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984) and Passion (2012).
Bruce Kawin (in his essay for the Criterion DVD of Sisters) suggests an even more concise formula for De Palma’s cinema: ‘What appears to be whole may be divided, and what appears to be two may be one’. This, indeed, covers a lot that happens in these films: sometimes, a single character can be revealed as harbouring multiple personalities, each acting on their own accord, as in Raising Cain (1992); at other times, multiple avatars can turn out to be conscious manifestations of a single, lookalike figure, as in Dressed to Kill (1980). And a narrative itself can often split in two, with the introduction of a new, central character (the Psycho trick)—De Palma likes nothing better than to multiply threads of intrigue, characters (with their POVs), and internal narrative worlds, a trait of sensibility which is evident as early as his short Woton’s Wake (1962).
Kawin sought a logic to cohere and unify the various motifs in De Palma’s films, as do we. If we take a cluster of these motifs relating to the idea of vision, then we quickly realise that they allow De Palma to create compositional effects and narrative extravagances of every kind. But this director’s obsession for the visual does not cover only the style and narratives of his films; it is also, frequently, the true, deep theme of his cinema. The very act of looking and its consequences; the relationship between the subject who looks and the object of their gaze; the way of processing, decoding and interpreting what we see; the value of absolute truth that we tend to give the information that reaches us through the organ of sight ... All these issues are central to his films.
But how, according to what concrete forms, does vision become such a central concern for De Palma?
1. In the first place, De Palma is obsessed with the coupling of vision and manipulation. His cinema is full of characters who mislead others, using disguises or masks to adopt a false identity, or to project an image of themselves which is not truthful. A film like Obsession (1976), for example, is constructed entirely on the mystery of a person who is not who she seems to be, nor who she claims to be. Beyond manipulation, there is another type of deception associated with a form of vision that is even more elaborate and sophisticated. De Palma’s films are often built on an essential scene in which his characters see something crucial. But, in reality, what they are seeing is the product of a ruse; it is something that has been designed and executed with the intention that the heroes will be witnesses of this event that covers or hides something else which is far more sinister. Later, when the main characters finally understand that they have been used, the scene returns to be shown a second time—but now the emphasis is on the construction of the deception, the panoply of the trap. And when it appears for the second time, this scene serves as a mise en abyme that reveals the inner workings of an illusion, the process of creating a trick that has taken place inside the diegesis (executed by the villain), but also outside it (where De Palma serves as a demiurge of his filmic universe). Passing twice over the same scene, the protagonists (and us with them) cross over from a naïve gaze to the discovery of artifice.
2. Another constant trope related to vision is the eternal return of an image. This is something which, in De Palma’s cinema, is profoundly connected to the idea of trauma. Often, De Palma’s characters bear witness to something terrible, and are unable to get rid of this vision that torments them. Trauma returns as an image that haunts them, sometimes in the form of a dream, hallucination or memory. In contrast to this, many of De Palma’s films arrest themselves in moments of momentary blindness. This is a matter of brief lapses in time when the characters cannot see (whether because of a body standing in front of them, a natural flare, or the artificial flash of a camera). These lapses are sometimes only a few brief seconds but De Palma dilates them, because such moments in which characters lose control of a situation are often crucial for the narrative resolution. It is the case, in De Palma’s cinema, that seeing is not always synonymous with knowing—his films frequently warn us that the eye is a misleading or deceptive bodily organ. But not seeing is definitely a synonym for disaster, as well as a sign of fragility and weakness. For this reason, in films like Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain, Blow Out, Carrie (1976) and Passion, there is something sinister lurking somewhere that escapes vision. Or to put it concisely: in De Palma’s cinema, trauma is manifested in an image that returns; catastrophe arises at the moment of impaired vision; and horror is usually localised in a blind spot.
3. The image that appears during the final credits of Femme Fatale (2002)—a panorama of a Paris district, formed from the joining of many photographs of small portions of that neighborhood—perfectly sums up the way in which De Palma constructs his films: the way in which he makes us see a reality that, like a puzzle or a collage, is revealed only in the sum of its fragments. Almost all of his films include at least one elaborate sequence in which there is a series of actions, all interrelated, involving many characters. De Palma films these set-pieces like nobody else, because his mastery of rhythm and choreography is total, and also because the conception of this type of sequence is adjusted perfectly to his vision of reality as something that, to be appreciated and understood properly, first needs to be decomposed; we need to isolate the parts of the world, magnify its details and see how they relate to each other, in order to understand the ‘big picture’. Moreover, reality comes in the form of a palimpsest, constructed at different layers, where images are superimposed on other images, sometimes hiding those which are below, at other times offering a combination of several at once. In his most critical mode, De Palma shows us that, in a world of visual dictatorship, some images are concealed, while everybody turns their heads to the same screens.
Ultimately, these three stories or structures of vision in De Palma are also, at their deepest level, fantasy-scenarios: situations and configurations that capture De Palma’s imagination, and that he worries over (consciously and unconsciously) from film to film. These fantasy-scenarios combine personal phantasms with all manner of historic, social and political traumas: the ghosts of the 1960s, like the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam, which his films never cease turning over and re-examining. And this is because, even though De Palma will always tell us that he only cares about ‘pure film’, the deep, unresolvable impurity of these fantasy-scenarios also drives him on as an artist.