May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 21, 2013
(Ed. note: A very welcome, detailed, and incisive guest post from Ryan Holt, who does not write enough about cinema over here. This is the first post in a series on De Palma and Chris Dumas’ recent book Un-American Psycho.)
“You see, several years ago, long after the floods, moisture seeped into a portion of the altarpiece, and it began to peel, revealing an older painting underneath. Then the art scholars had to decide what to do. Should they remove and destroy a great painting by Daddi to uncover what appears to be a crude first draft underneath it, or should they restore the original, but never know for sure what lies beneath it?”
~ Obsession, 1976, co-written and directed by Brian De Palma
Chris Dumas’ Un-American Psycho, released in June of last year, ambitiously reaches to be more than just a study of Brian De Palma’s films (though it is certainly at least that); it attempts to use De Palma and the controversy surrounding his films as a vehicle to probe the failings of the discipline of film studies. Critics more knowledgeable than myself, such as Adrian Martin (“To Wax Zizekian”) and Andrew Tracy (“Do the Collapse”), have effectively dismantled this grander project, but I nevertheless side with Andrew Tracy when he states that Dumas’ “larger failure conversely yields some commendable, localized successes.” Dumas’ conception of De Palma as a failed revolutionary who has embedded the narrative of that failure in his films leads to some compelling engagement with De Palma’s work.
For Dumas, De Palma’s key moment of failure was Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), a film which was taken away from De Palma by the studio and badly mangled. Dumas’ contention is that all of De Palma’s post-Rabbit films embed a certain disillusionment that mirrors De Palma’s own failure and, by extension, the failure of the 1960s Left of which he was a part. As an example of this reading, for Dumas, Sisters (1973) embodies this failure in the person of Philip,
“the perfectly assimilated minority, who has a good job, wears a suit and tie and talks white—that is to say, the embodiment of the Left’s dream of an integrated, raceless future, in which love is color blind, man!—dies in an explosion of violence and then disappears into a piece of furniture, and once he is gone, no one remembers him.”
Dumas finds another narrative of failure in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which “concerns an artist who unknowingly sells his soul to the devil and dies in the attempt to liberate himself from its clutches” (136), signifying that “everything, all endeavor, will eventually slide into the machine of vulgarity that typifies the spectacle” (138).
I singled-out those two films as examples because they come as precursors to De Palma’s 1976 film, Obsession, which, unlike many of the De Palma films covered in Un-American Psycho, receives fairly poor treatment at Dumas’ hands. I state this not just because of my own belief in Obsession’s considerable artistic merits—which Dumas does not share—but because Dumas oddly neglects to understand Obsession in the same terms as the other De Palma films he examines. While Dumas’ broader notion is that De Palma’s films are all “in some way about the twinned monsters of global capitalism and Hollywood film practice” (139), he nevertheless narrowly understands Obsession as the one film in which De Palma makes a mere Hitchcock rip-off, a shallow imitation which, “of all of De Palma’s films, is closest in its effects to Gus van Sant’s zombified shot-for-shot reanimation of Psycho” (59).
Dumas makes the somewhat dubious claim that “the easiest critical distinction to make, when dealing with De Palma, is deciding which movies are good and which are bad,” and subsequently groups Obsession among the bad films, which are “Get to Know Your Rabbit (1970), Obsession (1976), Wise Guys (1986), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1991), Mission to Mars (2000), and perhaps The Black Dahlia (2006)” (150). Dumas claims that all of these films are united by the fact that “De Palma, in each instance, was a director for hire; he neither originated the project nor wrote the script” (150). As far as Obsession is concerned, this is factually incorrect; Obsession was not a “for hire” project for De Palma. Obsession’s genesis—as explained in Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary Obsession Revisited—occurred when Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader attended a screening of Vertigo. After the screening, De Palma and Schrader both agreed that they should attempt to make another film like it and subsequently hashed-out a story together. After the story was settled, Paul Schrader wrote the script. As the film neared shooting, De Palma decided that the script, as is, did not work, and so Schrader, who disagreed with De Palma’s proposed changes, walked away, and De Palma finished the script on his own.
Perhaps this mistaken sense of Obsession’s origins is partially responsible for Dumas’ indifferent treatment of the film. In Un-American Psycho, Dumas spends little time with the “for hire” De Palma films, even those of which that are generally acclaimed, such as Carrie and The Fury, and is more fascinated by those that were directly originated by De Palma himself, such as Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double, all of which Dumas recognizes as openly political works. The big exception, of course, is Scarface, which Dumas examines in detail despite its “for hire” nature, but which Dumas also understands to be part of an arc of films—Blow Out, Scarface, and Body Double—in which De Palma takes an increasingly aggressive stance toward his critics.
Dumas also understands Obsession to be part of an arc of films—which we can draw out as Sisters, Obsession, and Dressed to Kill—that mark De Palma’s developing experimentation with and handle on Hitchcockian formal strategy. In this arc, Sisters holds a special place in Dumas’ narrative of De Palma as a political filmmaker, since “Sisters might be seen as De Palma’s first attempt to mobilize Psycho (and other Hitchcockian modules) toward a specifically political end” (58). But when Dumas moves from Sisters to Obsession, Dumas makes it clear that he does find that same that political use of Hitchcock in Obsession:
“By way of contrast, let us then describe Obsession, with its mangled script by Paul Schrader, as De Palma’s impossible attempt to behave like Andrew Sarris—that is to say, to regard Hitchcock from the position of slave in relation to his master; here we find De Palma attempting to recreate the ‘masterpiece effect’ of Vertigo by carefully emulating its tone, structure, sound, and mise-en-scene.” (58)
Dumas later reiterates this when he states that “Sisters . . . might be a political act built on a Hitchockian skeleton” and immediately thereafter notes that “Obsession represents an attempt at mastery, both of Vertigo in its specificity and of Hitchcock’s film grammar in general” (59). So if Sisters is a political film, then Obsession is merely a kind of empty exercise.
Because Dumas routinely examines De Palma’s films as containing analogical structures, we may do well to understand Obsession and, for the sake of contrast, Vertigo from that point of view. Critics have often remarked on the presence of analogues for the screen-spectator relationship in Vertigo. Vertigo’s protagonist, Scottie, can be seen as progressing from the role of “film watcher” (his interaction in Gavin Elster’s fictional ghost story) to “film director” (his obsessive recreation of Gavin Elster’s fictional ghost story). However, this understanding cannot be applied to Obsession. Obsession’s protagonist, Michael Courtland, never progresses from “film watcher” to “film director,” though he can at least be said to the former. Obsession actually opens with a film of sorts: a title sequence montage of home photos that turns out to be the slide-show at Courtland’s wedding anniversary party. But this is really not a “film” at all, as much as it is Courtland’s actual life; insofar as there is a “film” Courtland watches, it is the intricately-conceived fantasy masterminded by his sinister business partner, Robert Lasalle.
This points to a key shift of narrative emphasis and structure from Vertigo to Obsession, the latter of which places significantly greater emphasis on the role of the manipulator. In Vertigo, the manipulator, Gavin Elster, fades from the picture around the halfway mark, but in Obsession, Lasalle remains a significant presence right up until the film’s climax. Obsession goes to great pains to emphasize Courtland’s business relationship with Lasalle, the details of which are explained in the opening minutes of the film and ultimately provide the key motivation for Lasalle’s villainy. De Palma further emphasizes Lasalle’s role in other ways, by directing John Lithgow to deliver an outrageous performance, accentuated by his outrageous Colonel Sanders appearance and accent—which puts the lie to Dumas claim that Obsession “may be said to be without humor” (59).
Lasalle may be built on the framework of Vertigo’s Gavin Elster, but in the way Obsession emphasizes his role as a devilish business partner, he seems closer to Phantom of the Paradise’s Swan, a manipulative businessman whose greed leaves no room for innocence. Swan and Lasalle both relentlessly seek to exploit the naïve in pursuit of their own interests. Take the Lasalle/Courtland confrontation scene, which has no precedent or parallel in Vertigo. Vertigo’s Scottie uncovers the scheme by himself, proceeding to very carefully deduce every feature and aspect of the plot, and takes his aggression out on Judy, not on Elster, who has since vanished from the picture. In Obsession, Lasalle reveals the plot to Courtland—Courtland is so desperate to believe that his wife has returned to him that he ignores all warnings and signs to the contrary—and taunts Courtland about his privileging of romanticism over financial gain. Like Phantom’s Winslow Leach, Courtland turns violent, murdering his manipulator.
Of course, the scheme hinges on romance, and once again we find substantial differences between the leading ladies in Vertigo and Obsession. Vertigo’s Judy/Madeleine remains defined by Scottie’s perception of her; she exists in the film only in relationship to Scottie. Obsession breaks away from this—leading Dumas to proclaim that Obsession fails locate “the central theoretical issue in Vertigo (that la femme n’existe pas)” (59). But he does not consider the significance of this break, the shift from “the woman does not exist” to “the woman exists, but she is not who you think she is, and she is also a victim.” Amy/Sandra, Michael’s daughter who pretends to be his reincarnated wife, shares Michael’s tragedy, but from a different vantage point, and has become obsessed with her father’s failure and absence, and therefore mirrors Courtland in a way that Madeleine/Judy could never mirror Scottie. The love story of Obsession is the story of two damaged, exploited people, each playing a part in Lasalle’s scheme, never completely aware of their shared relationship with one another until the finale.
That final scene proves to be Obsession’s master-stroke, a brilliant revision of Vertigo which collapses reunion and loss into a single event. Where Vertigo concludes with a repetition of death, a brutal, devastating loss and a literal gaze into the abyss, in Obsession, the abyss is present in the reunion. Father and daughter are reunited at last, but what they have gone through has hopelessly shattered their relationship to one another and their sense of self (in the original cut of the film, their relationship had been demolished by consummated incest; concerns about censorship led to the transformation of their consummation of marriage into an ambiguous dream sequence, leaving incestuous overtones without sexual consummation). The camera whirls around them, in the same move from Vertigo’s famous “reunion” sequence—but here, the camera is manic, spiraling out of control as Amy endlessly mutters “daddy, daddy” and Courtland moves from shocked realization to mad laughter.
In making all of these changes to Vertigo, De Palma restructures the story around a new question, one embodied by the quote that opens this article: what might we find when we peer behind the veneer of fantasy (which is art, since for De Palma art and illusion are essentially the same)? One finds the same idea in Blow Out, where the whole of an assassination conspiracy lies in the death scream on the soundtrack of an exploitation film. In Obsession, what lies beneath is classic De Palma: intermingled family trauma and capitalist exploitation. And in Blow Out, like Obsession, the protagonist(s) ultimately succumb(s) to madness in response over his experience. It’s classic De Palma, ever cynical.
So in this way, Obsession’s finale echoes the “nihilistic abandon” (138) that Dumas locates in Phantom of the Paradise’s ending, and can be said to be wholly De Palmian in the way that Dumas understands De Palma’s cinema to operate, employing Hitchcockian form in service of semi-allegorical narratives of personal and political failure. Obsession is more than just a painstaking imitation of Vertigo. In Obsession, like in Sisters before it and in Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Raising Cain after it, De Palma reshapes Hitchcock around his own concerns.