In honor of Brian De Palma's birthday here is a repost of my article on one of his most undervalued films.
***This article is my contribution to Cinema Viewfinder's terrific Brian De Palma Blog-A-Thon. Thanks so much to Tony at Cinema Viewfinder for inviting me to contribute.***
It’s one of the most breathtaking shots in Brian De Palma’s entire canon. Nancy Allen, at her loveliest, walks through a doorway in slow motion towards a visibly stunned Keith Gordon, who is frantically pounding away at some mashed potatoes. Pino Donnagio’s score grows more and more lush and dramatic as the luminous Allen walks straight towards the camera, as if some unseen force is inviting her. This classic De Palma moment isn’t from Dressed to Kill, or Blow Out, or any of the other classic films that he shot with his (then wife) Allen in the late seventies and early eighties. It is from the almost totally forgotten 1980 release Home Movies, and the unseen force inviting Allen to come closer is us, the audience.
The magnificent introduction of Nancy Allen in Home Movies is just the kind of moment that critics loved, and continue to love, to pick on De Palma about. Instead of recognizing it as an enduring ode to not only his lovely new bride, and a tip of his hat to the kind of glamour that Hollywood had all but abandoned by the seventies, De Palma was vilified as a director who objectified women as purely sexual objects.
The charge against De Palma as being a cinematic misogynist is absolutely bogus, as were most of the charges railed against him by most of the critics of the day who failed to see the significance of now classic films like Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double. Equally false is the accusation that De Palma was simply a Hitchcock rip-off, because the work of rip-off artists might provide momentary thrills but the don't survive, and the films of Brian De Palma have done just that, and the best of them resonate far more in our post Pulp Fiction cinematic world than perhaps even his most adoring fans would have even hoped.
While we are celebrating the bona-fide classic works of Brian De Palma let us not forget the smaller films that have slipped through the cracks of cinema history, such as the hard to find Home Movies, a film that returned De Palma to the savage satiric tone of his early works like Greetings and Hi Mom!.
Of course, De Palma had never totally abandoned the comedy that was found in his early films as all of his thrillers had a sharp wit to them, even though the humor was sometimes so subtle that it was hard to even notice. The comedic touches found in otherwise deadly serious works like Sisters, Carrie and Dressed to Kill were so easy to overlook that by the time of Wise Guys in 1985 everyone seemed totally surprised that De Palma was releasing an out and out comedy, an ironic state for one of modern cinema’s most clever satirists.
Starting out as an extremely low budget attempt by De Palma to help his students at Sarah Lawrence College shoot their own film, Home Movies quickly turned into a freewheeling production directed almost exclusively by De Palma with his students working as the crew. A wet dream of sorts for De Palma enthusiasts, the film stars a number of the most recognizable faces from his work in the seventies and it is filled with humorous nods to not only his own work, but also his life as a director and the critics who were so quick to vilify him. Also, like all great satires, there is a real anger running underneath every moment in Home Movies that helps make it one of the key, if little seen, works by De Palma.
Attempting any sort of clear-cut plot description of Home Movies would be more than a little frustrating and pointless. Let’s just say that it concerns a young student whose life is being filmed by a college film teacher named “The Maestro”. At the same time another film crew is filming The Maestro’s day-to-day life and, on top of that, De Palma’s crew is filming the documentary crew filming The Maestro who is filming the young student. Got it?
Home Movies is an easy work to criticize as it is technically (but deliberately) all over the place, but it’s a wonderfully self reflective and knowing film that works as both a very funny comedy, as well as a tribute to the many styles of filmmaking De Palma had mastered during the seventies. Hardcore De Palma fans will have a blast spotting all the different references to films like Hi Mom!, Get to Know Your Rabbit, Sisters, Carrie and The Fury, while casual fans will get a kick out of such a famous director willing to go out on a limb with such a loose knit and near anarchic production.
From the hilarious and incredibly smart opening credit sequence in which everything from a house to a doctor’s fingers take on a sharp and leering voyeuristic viewpoint, to the idea that everyone can be the star of their own film (an idea that might have seemed like a novelty in 1980, but has become a terrifying reality in our modern world), Home Movies is one of De Palma’s most intelligent productions. If some of his thrillers had paid homage to the Italian Giallos from the likes of Dario Argento (a director, much more than Hitchcock, that De Palma should be aligned with) then Home Movies owes more than a passing debt to the many Italian sex comedies of the seventies. Even the wild and audacious score by the ever present Pino Donnagio sounds like it could be the soundtrack to any number of Laura Antonelli or Gloria Guida productions. Home Movies is much more than just a silly slapstick farce as De Palma, and his young crew, use the film as an audacious platform to combine all of his trademark touches into a sort of greatest hits work (every De Palma trademark is here with the exception of the split-screen montage). The film also works, much like Scorsese’s later After Hours, as a much needed back to basics work by an physically and emotionally exhausted filmmaker. The ‘break’ paid off as De Palma’s next two films, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, proved to be arguably the finest of his now near five-decade career.
De Palma fans not familiar with Home Movies will not only be surprised by the number of odes to his past films but will be shocked by the iconic cast on hand, which stands as a who’s who of De Palma players from the seventies. Nancy Allen, who is so wonderfully funny and utterly charming here, appears alongside Keith Gordon, and the two of them successfully capture the chemistry that played such an important, if often unnoticed role, in Dressed to Kill. Other familiar faces include Kirk Douglas, fresh from The Fury, in hilarious form as the egomaniacal Maestro, as well the incredibly gifted Gerrit Graham who parodies his famous role as “Beef” in Phantom of the Paradise brilliantly. Many more appear as well and its hard not to be overwhelmed on first viewing by all the familiar faces from De Palma’s past works, who are all clearly having a good time simultaneously paying tribute to and gently mocking their past work.
De Palma doesn’t allow his actors to be alone in the self-parodying department as he delights in poking fun of himself throughout the film. It is De Palma’s own ability to laugh at himself though that makes Home Movies finally one of his most profound works. While the character of The Maestro is De Palma’s comment on the soulless and ego-driven director that so many critics accused of him of being, it is Gordon’s role as the good natured student cast in his own film as an extra that says more about the real Brian De Palma than the caricature of The Maestro. It’s as though De Palma recognizes his place as a bit of the 'lost man' amongst his peers and friends (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg) who had all achieved both the acclaim and respect that had eluded the deserving De Palma throughout the seventies. The reoccurring image of the dejected and frustrated Gordon alone in a train station is a telling one for De Palma, a director so many have tried to push to the sidelines of modern American cinema.
Home Movies stands as a wonderful tribute to the versatility of Brian De Palma as a filmmaker, as well as a sharp reminder that he is at his best when he is allowed to work with people he is most at home with. De Palma’s films before he was forced into a director for hire role in the mid eighties were very much family affairs and Home Movies feels today a bit like a missing section of what has become an enduring and quite distinctive legacy. It’s also a sweet tribute to the team of De Palma and Allen, a wonderful combination that was broken up by the unfair and often savage criticism thrown at both of them after Dressed to Kill.
Home Movies can technically be labeled as a minor Brian De Palma film, but it is worth much more than the footnote status it is often given. Briefly available on VHS and laserdic in the eighties, the film has been out of print in The United States for nearly two decades. Out on DVD in Europe the film, sometimes known as The Maestro, is more than deserving of a re-release in America. Nearly universally ignored at the time of its brief theatrical release and rarely mentioned even by die-hard De Palma fans, Home Movies is a lost little treasure from one of America’s most important directors.