Brian De Palma’s land of paradox

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

9 Responses to Brian De Palma’s land of paradox

  1. Phillip says:

    It’s easy to give praise to a man who’s had such a splendid career, but when do you turn him around and kick him in the rear and say, how about you start making some of those great movies again – where your camera work actually elevates a good story rather than working to create a story through the style. Characters aren’t created through tricky shots, neither is dialogue… camera work is only there to heighten something that exists in the script already. And for the past decade these themes you speak of have only been used as paper thin devices in sub par scripts. How do you get a creator whose had some really great years to start becoming that anxious, young director again; willing to take risks and sacrifice the idea of being content with what one knows. Because eventually what one knows loses it’s depth, and it becomes a diatribe, and then a cliche. De Palma has reached that point. All of his memorable moments of filmmaking in the past decade, have been moments produced in films already. For instance the zero gravity dance in “Mission to Mars” was first seen in Tarkovsk’y “Solaris”. De Palma has fallen into a cycle of his own and other’s creations.

    It’s easy to say that his style is brilliant, but without the proper story it becomes unnecessary, and at times ridiculous to watch – “Snake Eyes” is of course the perfect prism for this theory. It’s like watching a diver gracefully jumping off a board into a pool with no water. He needs to begin focusing on what matters first, filling that pool, so when he’s ready to dive, there’s something there for him to land in.

    That being said I’ll give “Dahlia” a chance.

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