(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 second post in a series on De Palma and Chris Dumas’ recent book Un-American Psycho.)
In his “film essay” on forgery and deceit, F for Fake, Orson Welles performs a magic trick and then jovially declares, “I am a charlatan.” This marvelous statement of directorial identity—also a statement about cinema itself, which is fundamentally a trick, an optical illusion—applies just as well to Brian De Palma, who expressed the following to Richard Rubinstein in 1973:
“We are very much controlled by the media which presents things to us. And those media can be manipulated and they can be manipulated in any way: they can make what is seemingly real false and what is seemingly false real. And that is what has always fascinated me about film—the ability to lie and twist it any way you want.”
This remark, an implicit rebuke of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “cinema is truth” maxim, suggests that film, first and foremost, is illusion, detached from truth and reality, and that, by extension, the director is a manipulator (or, if you will, a charlatan). Considering De Palma’s films, which are uniquely preoccupied with manipulation and deception as a theme and as a formal strategy, it’s tempting to see this as a kind of thesis statement.
Take a look at De Palma’s 2002 film, Femme Fatale, which opens with a lush, exuberant heist sequence set at the Cannes Film Festival in which the film’s protagonist, Laure Ash, seduces a fashion model to acquire a jeweled corset. As is often the case with De Palma, the sequence contains a comment on the viewer/film relationship: during the heist, the Cannes security team, watching security camera feeds, misses a break-in because they are too enraptured by the vision of the scantily-clad model wearing the jeweled corset. This parallels what De Palma expects—or, rather, knows—of the audience. De Palma hides, in plain sight, the reveal that Laure Ash is actually conning her collaborators (Laure is working in collusion with the fashion model to steal the corset for herself), which goes unnoticed because the audience is distracted by steamy images of seduction. It’s a bit of sleight of hand that De Palma good-naturedly reveals toward the end of the film, replaying the sequence in a way that underscores his misdirection.
The sequence highlights many of De Palma’s tendencies, such as over-the-top, absurd story elements (only in a De Palma film will you find a heist sequence that depends on an unlikely seduction consisting of looks and glances), suspense sequences (Femme Fatale’s heist sequence recalls the iconic heist sequence at the center of De Palma’s 1996 film, Mission: Impossible), metafictional elements (the heist is set at the Cannes Film Festival, after all), extravagant violence (a security guard takes a dart to the eye), explicit eroticism, and an emphasis on voyeurism. All of these elements ties into what is generally understood by the name “De Palma.” But all of this these aspects are frequently united in a repeated strategy in De Palma’s films, which is to con characters and the audience simultaneously, often through misdirection or visual tricks, only to let the audience in on mechanics of the trick later (see also Sisters, Dressed to Kill, or Body Double).
Of course, the sequence in Femme Fatale relies on sensationalistic content—in this case, lurid sexuality—as bait, and willingness to use sexuality and violence has earned De Palma his fair share of controversy, the details of which I do not intend to focus on here. But whatever else can be said about the extreme content in De Palma’s films, his utilization of it should be partially understood as an extension of De Palma’s interest in and employment of narrative and/or formal manipulation. So sexuality can function as a narrative lure in his thrillers like Femme Fatale and Body Double, and elsewhere can accentuate sharp tonal shifts, lulling the audience into one mode and then pulling the rug out from under them, as in the opening moments of Carrie and Dressed to Kill.
De Palma’s awareness of the power of sensationalistic content and its relationship to the media plays out in his feverish conspiracy thriller, Blow Out. Blow Out provides an illustration of media manipulation on a narrative level: a government operative fakes sex murders to divert media attention away from a political assassination. But in mirroring the creation of the essential proof of this assassination (a Zapruder-style film reel that is only completed when protagonist Jack Terry syncs it with the soundtrack of a gunshot) with the creation of Coed Frenzy (the movie-within-a-movie that is only completed when Jack Terry syncs it with a real-life death scream, the last bit of evidence for the assassination plot), Blow Out suggests a troubling relationship between truth and entertainment and media discourse, as Chris Dumas aptly explains in Un-American Psycho:
“ . . . Coed Frenzy—the movie that is, unknown to everyone but our protagonist, a snuff film—turns out to be essential evidence . . . And the public event that the good citizens of Philadelphia understand as the ‘random sex killings’ of the Liberty Bell Strangler is similar to Coed Frenzy in precisely and only one way: they both appear to be pathological in origin, but each really has only one function—to divert attention away from the crimes of the state.”
So the truth is overwhelmed by misdirection. The flip side is that the misdirection itself—the cover-up—also testifies to truth, provided you know where to look, and that you know to look.
Nowhere has De Palma seemed more determined to make viewers aware of their relationship to cinema than in Body Double, the apex of his cinematic pranksterism. Body Double parodies the “new master of suspense” reputation De Palma had cultivated with films like Sisters, Obsession, and Dressed to Kill, while constantly shattering the illusion of cinema with a string of sight-gags (sight-gags actually bookend the film; the film’s title plays over a landscape that is revealed to be a backdrop on a Hollywood backlot, and the end credits scroll over an actress’ replacement by a body double for the filming of a nude scene) and hyper-absurd story elements (the film shuts down to allow an out-of-left-field music video sequence, and the villain dresses in stage makeup as a power-drill-wielding Indian to hide his identity). Vincente Rodriguez-Ortega, writing for Reverse Shot, summarizes the film’s self-destruction:
“[Body Double] questions its adherence to genre by defying . . . causal verisimilitude and visual transparency, offering instead a multilayered reflection on the act of filmmaking itself, as well as of looking, via one of the most inept ensembles of actors ever put together and the continuous undermining of its own narrative strands. In De Palma’s twisted hands, the film’s main themes—the double, sexual perversion, and gruesome violence—become nothing but a series of magic tricks that reveal the slasher film’s audiovisual fabric, leaving the spectator alone with the naked images and sounds of film itself.”
And here is Dumas again, extrapolating the film’s final moments:
“ . . . that moment we call the screen-audience analogue occurs repeatedly in Blow Out and in a near-hysterical, screamingly insistent way in Body Double—especially in the film’s extravagantly reflexive denouement, which stages Craig Wasson’s speech to Melanie Griffith as she sits in the grave (“Are you gonna stay in there the rest of your life?”) as a plea from the film to the spectator, who refuses to get out of his or her theater seat and realize that this is the movies.”
Body Double is De Palma the Charlatan at his most blatant, creating a film that is so conflicted and at odds with itself that it self-destructs, desperate to make the audience aware of cinema’s inherent fakery and fraudulence.
But what makes De Palma such a beguiling filmmaker is that he isn’t just a trickster, but he is also a true-blue believer, which no film encapsulates quite like Mission to Mars. What makes the much-maligned Mission to Mars such an odd experience for those familiar with De Palma’s work is that it serves up standard Hollywood tropes and conventions without a hint of satire or parody. Instead, Mission to Mars utilizes the Hollywood blockbuster format in an attempt to achieve a sense of awe, offering a paean to scientific achievement and human determination. The film climaxes with an audience analogue that is as notable as the one Dumas singles out in Body Double: scientists come into contact with their creators through an extraterrestrial movie screen that plays out the history of the solar system and the birth of life on Earth. It’s humanity meeting God in a movie theater.
So this is the other De Palma, De Palma the Believer, who remains utterly enraptured by cinema, the same De Palma who saw Vertigo in a movie theater and was so inspired that he abandoned his physics studies to become a filmmaker. This is the same De Palma who, in a 1975 interview with David Bartholomew, claimed that “everything I do and feel is in my movies,” and who, in a 1980 interview with Ralph Appelbaum, took Stanley Kubrick to task for having contempt for genre conventions in his film adaptation of The Shining, noting that “you have to take them and then personalize them.” His films are renowned for their Big Movie Moments, moments of visceral, ecstatic, overpowering filmmaking, indelible and overwhelming moments like Carrie’s prom-turned-inferno, The Fury’s psychic violence, Dressed to Kill’s elevator murder, or Scarface’s blood-spattered last stand.
So this is the fascinating dissonance at the heart of heart of De Palma’s work: De Palma simultaneously adores and mistrusts the powerful illusion that is cinema. His films blur the lines between immersion and awareness, between sarcasm and sincerity. In straddling both sides of the fence, De Palma’s films invite us to do the same.