Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Missing Man In The Middle

There was something surreal about seeing Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola give Martin Scorsese his long overdue Oscar the other night. While I am not a huge Lucas or Spielberg fan there is no denying their monumental importance to film and seeing this group together again was pretty inspiring. I felt it was pretty obvious that Scorsese was going to win when those three walked out on the stage; so upon their introduction where Lucas joked that that he was the only one who hadn't won an oscar I found myself thinking about a photograph I had seen years before and about a guy who has never even been nominated for an Academy Award.
I have never been able to comprehend peoples disdain for Brian De Palma. De Palma's films along with Scorseses and Coppolas shaped my youth as no other American filmmaker did, and yet many people continue to have an overwhelming hatred for De Palma's body of work.
The complaints against De Palma have almost always been the same and have almost always been unsatisfactory to me. The biggest one is the misogynistic claim that has constantly been thrown at him. I have always had the hardest time swallowing this one as it is hard to think of another modern American director who has continually worked with such strong women in his films. De Palma's 'golden' age between Sisters and Scarface presented us with some of the most effective work by actresses in that incredible period. From Margot Kidder in Sisters through Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface De Palma had an amazing skill at photographing, directing and bringing out the best of his leading ladies. Sissy Spacek remains the most famous De Palma heroine in Carrie but one shouldn't overlook the work of Amy Irving and Nancy Allen in these films. I would hold Amy Irving's work in The Fury among the great performances of the seventies and Nancy Allen brought such an immeasurable presence to De Palma's cinema that it is impossible to imagine these films without her.
The other criticisms have always been the same: too violent, too stylized, too Hitchcockian....too much. I honestly think that many 'film' lovers are actually scared of cinema, and the possibilities of it. De Palma is one of the most cinematic of all directors, this man loves film and he loves what he can do with it. More than any of his peers De Palma has been able to create a body of work that is itself in love with cinema, but it is also a body of work that has an emotional resonance that many continue to deny. For all of the audacious camera work, split screens, slow motion, deep focus and long tracking shots many of my favorite De Palma moments are more intensely personal shots. Travolta in the last scene of Blow-Out, Pacino standing in the rain in Carlito's Way watching Penelope Ann Miller through the window, the look on Amy Irving's face right before the climax of The Fury. De Palma isn't afraid to be as human as he is stylish, and it is the emotional weight that his greatest films carry, along with his undeniably power as a technician, that allows these films to endure more and more year after year.
I plan on writing more in the future on De Palma, I can't imagine my life as a movie lover without his films. Also this man can still deliver, seeing Femme Fatale a few years back was one of the most invigorating, and emotional, experiences I have ever had in a theater.
Brian De Palma will probably never even get nominated for an Academy Award and I am sure it didn't cross anyone else's mind that he was missing from that group the other night. His critics have always tried to push him to the margins and yet his work continues to thrive. People keep discovering his films, gloating web-sites continue to appear and for people like me that have loved his work for so many years, we continue to find the answer as to why we love cinema in his greatest films.


colinr0380 said...

I'm with you there, and thank you for a very eloquent defence of De Palma's other leading ladies. I think one of the reasons I watched The Fury so much as a teenager was because I'd fallen in love with Amy Irving (mind you, no as much asa I had with Carrie Snodgress who played Hester - which made her death in the film that much more shocking!)

And Nancy Allen is fantastic in Dressed To Kill, I'm glad she went on to be in one of the best 80s films with Robocop!

I used to unreservedly love DePalma. I found Sisters a little clunky (more a fault of mine for watching it after a lot of his later work which is more polished), but many sequences are very powerful.

Carrie is the rare instance (and an even rarer King adaptation) of the film being even better than the book, and the book was one of King's best. It is an example of some of the best moments being entirely its own and not lifted from the book i.e. the visual style, Spacek's performance (again I fell in love with Amy Irving but more Betty Buckley as the teacher and that brilliant "is she really laughing at Carrie, or has Carrie lost it?". Either way her death brings the much needed sense of pain and loss that the 'evil' characters dying doesn't.

I didn't feel The Fury was as good, but then what could be. It was still an excellent horror/thriller film that had moments only De Palma could have created.

Dressed To Kill was, for me, on the same level as Carrie. A fantastic murder thriller that pulled the Hitchcock trick of not being a thriller for the first half hour to forty minutes!

I loved the way Blow Out took an Antonioni theme and twisted it into De Palma's own even more visual universe. Body Double is perhaps my most recent favourite film - on repeat viewings this films reveals its true excellence and I'm coming to love it more and more!

Casualties of War is one of my favourite war films and has one of Michael J. Fox's best roles. Even though his career has been prematurely cut off, he should be very proud of the work he was able to achieve - I've never seen Fox give a bad performance. The ending of this is beautiful and I can't understand people who say that Fox is being 'let off' for the crimes he witnessed in his past and did nothing about - if anything the ending shows how he will be forever haunted by what he witnessed and was unable to stop occuring, and that he can never receive forgiveness from the girl who was killed.

Scarface is one of my favourite gangster films. Al Pacino gives a brilliant all-in peformance (although it does feel that it unbalanced the characters he was to play later in his career, with a number of wild roles in Scent of a Woman "Boo-yah!" and Devil's Advocate to come). Michelle Pfeiffer's thin as a twig appearance is perfect for a drug using trophy wife. Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio was the lady I fell in love with this time(and it is beautifully appropriate that she fires the first shots in the final sequence)! A beautiful film showing the excesses of a gangster lifestyle - are all the Gangsta rappers on the DVD showing their appreciation for the film doing so in an ironic manner, or are they envious of the lifestyle? That dilemma worries me a little!

I'll skip over some of the other films. Unfortunately I felt De Palma slipping in the 90s with Mission: Impossible. It was impossible to miss De Palma's stylings, but apart from some excellent sequences (hanging in the computer room for example) the story felt completely hollow.

I really liked Snake Eyes, but then the impossible happened for me. De Palma made a film I hated - and not just hated, but detested. Mission To Mars.

What an awful, and most horribly dumb, piece of crap that film was. Terrible effects, terrible acting, terrible story, terrible score (Morricone's worst score). And to know it was made by De Palma made me feel sick, knowing he was capable of much better. I think this was when his Oscar hopes went down the pan - not even Lucas has made a worse film!

Sadly I missed Femme Fatale because of my wariness after Mission To Mars. For the first time the impossible had happened. De Palma had become a director I could 'give or take'. I wasn't going to be clamoring for his next film as I had before Mission To Mars.

I have bought the DVD of Black Dahlia, but from what I hear it is not one of De Palma's best. Hopefully it will restore De Palma somewhat (after all nothing could be worse than Mission, which is one of the worst films I have ever seen - certainly the worst of the 2000s so far).

I do hope he returns to some semblence of his previous self, as he has made some amazing, one of a kind, perfect films in his time. I wonder if one of the other reasons De Palma has never won an Oscar is because he plays with genres and isn't afraid to overplay things, while the Academy probably prefer straight drama (witness Scorcese winning for perhaps his most conventional film he has made).

This overplaying is one reason why I love De Palma and directors like Paul Verhoeven, both of whom took almost simultaneous missteps in 2000 with Mission To Mars from one and Hollow Man from the other. That was he moment when they fell off the tightrope they were walking between insight and parody. (Verhoeven had done so before with Showgirls, but I'm coming to appreciate its camp charms more each time I see it again - somehow I don't think I'll have the same reaction to the hateful and dumb Hollow Man though)

It is great to see Verhoeven seemingly having great success with Black Book. Now if we could only rehabilitate De Palma!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thank you for your incredibly detailed response. I really appreciate your thoughts and the time you took to post them.
I highly recommend Femme Fatale for you, it really returned De Palma to his glory years (76-84)and I promise it'll bury Mission To Mars for you.
Thanks again for your comments, I'll be posting more on De Palma, Nancy Allen and Amy Irving is the future. Hope you keep finding stuff on the blog that will be of interest.