Brian De Palma’s land of paradox

August 26, 2006

The anticipation over the September 15 release of The Black Dahlia has sparked a wave of online interest in Brian De Palma. Apart from Slant’s much-welcome Auteur Fatale symposium, inspiring De Palma posts have popped up on the blogs of Zach Campbell, Jim Emerson, Peter Nellhaus, Girish Shambu, Eric, That Little Round-Headed Boy and Dennis Cozzalio. Consider this my contribution to what seems to have become another unofficial Blog-a-Thon.


If you look at Brian De Palma’s erratic filmography, shifting as it does between hit and flop, cult, mainstream and avant-garde, a returning stylistic pattern becomes evident. Not only do his films frequently contradict with each other, they each contain a multitude of antagonisms of their own. They’re at once moral and manipulative, compassionate and calculating, gorgeous and repellent, spellbinding and unsettling, sardonic and rhapsodic, gloomy and sublime. Looking at a De Palma film is entering a land of paradox. No wonder the man has always inspired controversy: De Palma’s entire oeuvre is the pinnacle of conflict.

His substance has always been in the form. Right there in that recurring paradox motif. De Palma has explained himself as an artist who works on moral outrage. Another typical De Palma axiom: no matter how immoral his movies may appear (his talent for infusing all things nasty with poetry is legendary), at the heart they are intricate tales of morality. From the revenge fantasies that make up Carrie and The Fury to the cathartic moment of forgiveness in Casualties of War; from the fruitless run for redemption at the close of Blow Out to the divine second chance given in Femme Fatale; from the sleazy adventures of an all-American housewife to the hooker with a heart of gold in Dressed to Kill–they’re all vivid representations of the dualism between the righteous and the crooked, the vulnerable and the obscene, of predestination versus willpower, of crime and punishment.

De Palma’s characteristic use of discordant style elements like the double, parallel action sequences, split screen and split-diopter shots, rear projection, reverse angles, clashing archetypes and symbolic inversions serve not to show off his directing skills, but are there to help the viewer see both sides of the moral coin and explore the effect of contrarian choices during similar opportunities. What better way to lay bare the mechanisms of fate, choice, power, obsession and betrayal than to let your audience experience the subjectivity of truth firsthand through multiple points of view, or to follow two people who are either polar opposites or a close match within the same storyline? If the similarity is obvious, the difference will be easier to detect. And it’s the difference that matters in a morality tale; the difference between fortune and tragedy, life and death, innocence and guilt, failure and success. Knowing that nuance is to know right from wrong, or to realize how hard it is to make that difference.

Despite the archetypes and schematic structures, De Palma never arrives at a black and white conclusion. He deceives expectation to reveal there is no such thing as a single truth, or that our perception of it is incomplete. Even when his doubles expose a yin/yang dynamic right from the beginning, he complicates matters by reversing roles halfway through the film (Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne in Snake Eyes), juggling around with false identities (Gloria Revelle and Holly Body in Body Double, the face swapping in Mission: Impossible) or fusing his antagonists (Dr. Robert Elliott and Bobbi in Dressed to Kill, Carter and Cain in Raising Cain). This eloquent masquerade and constant shifting of perspective is what makes De Palma’s oeuvre so fascinatingly ambiguous. Ultimately, all his works share a uniquely personal vision on the duality of Man.


Most of the above was taken from my essay The Shape of Substance: Brian De Palma and the Function of Form, which can be described as a passionate defense of cinematic visual style, culminating in a fictional trial of Style vs. Substance, with Brian De Palma as the defendant and the late Stanley Kubrick as a surprise witness. You can read it at 24LiesASecond.

While you’re there, check out these other De Palma related articles:
Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma
by Mike Crowley
Casualties of Genre, Difference, and Vision: Casualties of War by Jim Moran
The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason by yours truly

It’s brilliant, but what is it?

August 24, 2006

It has become something of a family habit lately to watch YouTube cartoons before bedtime. On my vacation address in Denmark, after a little browsing under the key words “Tex Avery” (yes, I raise my children well), I bumped against this absolutely brilliant 3D-animated short. It’s splendid to look at, laugh-out-loud funny and my boys and me got a huge kick out of it when we played it with the volume cranked all the way up… but what is it? Can anyone tell me who made this? The YouTube title is Minuscule – The Ladybug, but it lacks any kind of credit.

Embarrassing Movie Posters #4

August 24, 2006


Faces I love

August 8, 2006

While Dennis Cozzalio is taking a much deserved break from the blogosphere (eventhough the time stamps below his most recent posts remind us we should take such a statement with a grain of salt), I thought I’d steal his idea and show you some faces I love.

Johanna ter Steege

She would have played the lead character in Stanley Kubrick’s Holocaust drama The Aryan Papers, if that project hadn’t been abandoned just weeks before production. Ter Steege’s fragile Dutch beauty last graced the screen in Nanouk Leopold’s mesmerizing Guernsey (2005). Which A-list director will give this actress the role of her lifetime?

Ian Holm

He gave life to a Hobbit, but something tells me Ian Holm may not be the nicest guy in the world. And yet, there’s a beautiful sadness to his gentle face that makes me want to hug him and tell him everything’s going to be all right.

Elena Anaya

I was struck by lightning when I first layed eyes on this Spanish knockout in Julio Medem’s Lucía y el Sexo / Sex and Lucia (2001). Point out any man at all and this baby will seduce the poor schmuck within a second. There’s only so much us guys can take.

John Lithgow

Although his theatrical brand of acting is hardly naturalistic, this face nails every humanly conceivable emotional nuance to perfection. Lithgow reflects the child in all of us: looney, jealous, innocent, overjoyed, clueless, whiney or just plain mean.

Jennifer Connelly

Hers must be the most beautiful eyes in the world. Hold me, I’m drowning in them right now…

Luis Guzmán

Pretty he ain’t. And why would he be? Big grins appear whenever this guy turns up in a supporting role. Admit it: everybody loves Luis!

David Lynch

He’s got a face much like his movies: uncanny, uneven (in a good way), mysterious and oddly amusing.

Films I look forward to

August 1, 2006

Click on the titles to watch the trailers:

  • The Fountain
    I was lucky enough to be among the first to see two scenes of this eagerly awaited Darren Aranofsky film at the Cinema Expo in Amsterdam. Visionary stuff, dark and lyrical, with a strong emotional core. Absolutely my cup of tea!
  • Zwartboek / Black Book
    I’m not sure what to think of Paul Verhoeven’s choice for Independence Day DP Karl Walter Lindenlaub, whose type of blockbuster gloss I’m not particularly fond of. Still, this smells like vintage European Verhoeven.
  • The Black Dahlia
    Just look at it, dammit! Look at it! De Palma’s next masterpiece is just a kiss away.
  • El Laberinto del Fauno / Pan’s Labyrinth
    Adult fairytale by 24Lies favorite Guillermo Del Toro, which seems like a gorgeous companion piece to his previous Spanish film, The Devil’s Backbone (2001).
  • Sunshine
    Danny Boyle, the British director of Trainspotting (1996) and 28 Days Later (2002), does existential sci-fi? Oh yes… right now, please!
  • Borat
    Sacha “Ali G” Baron Cohen in what promises to be the most politically incorrect comedy of the year. His (in-character) speech during the Cinema Expo almost killed me!
  • The Science of Sleep
    French visionary genius Michel Gondry doesn’t seem to be holding back one bit with this playful romantic fantasy. Can’t wait!

Keep those Five Words coming, people! (See post below.)