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« Free Reads -- Sullivan on media bias | Main | Free reads -- Philosoblog and Glenn Frazier »

November 22, 2002

Free Reads -- De Palma

Friedrich --


Like his work or not, Brian De Palma (who talks to Michael Sragow in a good interview for the Baltimore Sun here), has always been one of brainiest and most articulate of recent American film directors -- as well as one of the few who, even after becoming a filmmaker, has remained a real film buff. (Surprisingly rare, this.)

Sample passage:

From [Welles] you learn how to use a group of actors, how to move them around in a certain location and frame them with the camera. The big problem is that you no longer can get American actors who can move they way they do in Welles' films. Very few film actors in America have real stage training any more - they're used to walking around in a two-shot and having a Steadicam trail behind them. The good thing about Femme Fatale is that actors in France, like actors in London, are always on stage when they're not in movies.

Remember in the old days, when all the major actors pooh-poohed going to Hollywood? All the great roles for actors are still in the theater - they're certainly not in movies. The new generation of movie actors can't do anything because they have no stage movement or voice training.

Welles could come up with fabulous moves because he had this whole stage-trained troupe - he could order them to go anywhere and they could do anything.

It hadn't occurred to me that one of the reasons De Palma was able to do the extreme and stylish visual things he did in "Femme Fatale" was that many of his actors had a highly-trained ability to maneuver around physically. Dodge those cameras, kids!

Among the professional reviewers of the film that I've looked at online, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader (here), Armond White in New York Paper (here), and Sragow in the Baltimore Sun (here) strike me as most on-the-money -- which of course means that they seem to have watched and enjoyed the same movie I did (here). For a similar view that reaches different conclusions, try reading Felix Salmon's posting about the film (here).

The Femme Fatale Eyes of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos

Sample Rosenbaum passage:

What matters isn't plot details, much less character or motivation. It's the visual rhymes ... and other kinds of abstract visual patterns that hype up various incidents ... Because we're persuaded by De Palma's baroque stylistics, we're bound to see his characters as somewhat dehumanized. De Palma isn't so much eliminating motivations as minimizing and mocking them.

Sample White passage:

Reading the plot is less important than considering the title, which is the film’s theme. With his unfettered camera movements that evoke one’s dreaming, De Palma employs the essence of cinema (picture-making) so that a viewer is enraptured by his visual intelligence: every sequence probes sexist female iconography for the soul it represents.

Sample Sragow passage:

The whole movie gets its charge from a jaw-dropping blend of sensuality and calculation. De Palma achieves the surreal, intensified emotion of silent thrillers through nonstop audacity and invention, the way Fritz Lang did in Spies and Dr. Mabuse.

Sample (blush, gosh) Blowhard passage:

What it’s really like is an avant garde bit of silent film poetry (with an extravagant Ryu Sakamoto musical score) from the days back when film was still finding its way. It’s like “Napoleon” or “Menilmontant,” or one of Rene Clair’s early movies; it also reminds me of reading Hart Crane. Very experimental and ‘20s in feeling, in any case.

Sample Salmon passage:

The person we identify with more than anyone else in the movie is Banderas, and if he's done anything over those seven years, it's create a huge Hockneyesque montage on his wall ... The finished product is a coherent artwork in its own right, with a moment of transcendence standing out in the center from under a lowering sky. It's also the image that De Palma chooses to end his film on. We only wish that he, too, had managed to create a well-structured forest from his finely-honed trees.

Anyone who's fascinated by De Palma will have themselves a right orgy at two first-class websites: Bill Fentum's Directed by Brian De Palma (here), and Geoff Songs's De Palma a la Mod (here). I found most of the above material thanks to these two sites.



posted by Michael at November 22, 2002


That still doesn't excuse "Mission to Mars."

Posted by: Anna on November 23, 2002 1:50 PM

I think I was almost alone in loving "Mission to Mars." I found it poetic, beautiful and touching, and had an easy time forgiving its obvious flaws. But I do know, from sorry experience, that most people didn't experience it that way. Sigh.

If anyone reading this should, by the smallest chance, be interested in what kind of case the handful of people who loved "Mission to Mars" made for the film, here are two examples:

Armond White's review, here. (You have to scroll down past the first review to see it.)

And a review in Salon, here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 23, 2002 2:06 PM

Okay, so I finally saw Femme Fatale last night. It struck me as many things, among them being an parody of/homage to the sort of Sixties European puzzle-art-movie that seemed to dominate the film series I watched in high school at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. But mostly it seemed to be a "Pilgrim's Progress" allegory of De Palma's movie-making career: when you go too Hollywood (focus too much on the dough) things go really bad, but if you work at doing the right thing you can be redeemed. Ms. Romijn-Stamos, presumably, made the movie in order to show her grandkids what a great bod she had in 2002--I suppose if I looked like that (even for her, looks are a "wasting asset" with an expiration date stamped on them somewhere) I'd make a movie where I spent as much time undressed, too. I just wish De Palma would cool it with the slo-mo and the split screen; it drives me crazy, as if someone would grab me by the nose and said, "Now pay close attention." I suppose when dealing with an over-60-year-old filmmaker it doesn't do any good to say, "Brian, have you ever considered understatement?" (It's amazing how English-reticent Hitchcock seems after a De Palma flick.) I will say, however, that your description of the movie as having "very little intentional comedy" seemed a bit off-base: I kept edging into genuine (not derisive) laughter all the way through, and no doubt irritated the rest of the audience by laughing heartily at the end. I haven't analyzed it, but somehow it all went click-click-click like a rather good-natured joke. I did think he missed a trick by not pulling back from the photo at the end of the movie to see the rest of Banderas' collage. I realize this comment is pretty chaotic, but I really don't know if I liked it exactly. Watching the movie was sort of like putting up with a nut-job friend's antics because there's something about him/her that you really like--and at the same time, thinking, he/she's really presuming on my good nature here. I always feel like I take a lot of shit off De Palma, and some day I'm going to give him a piece of my mind.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 25, 2002 1:13 AM

I took the Wife to see it this evening -- her first time, my second. I enjoyed it just as much, but she wasn't wild about it -- she missed, as she said, the "bloody exuberance" of his earlier thrillers, and didn't find the spirit of the new movie (which I'd call something like "reflective aestheticism") a satisfying replacement.

But it was pleasing we saw the same picture, if you know what I mean. It can be frustrating to discuss a movie with someone and register that they had not just a different experience, but an unrelatedly different experience.So we had a good time gassing on together about the movie over dinner.

Anyway, a few further interpretive pirouettes -- indulge me, it isn't often these days that I go into film-buff raptures.

It's really a meditiation on thriller themes, with the elements and themes arranged in poetic and musical ways. De Palma seems to have said fuck it, and to have given up almost all interest in conventional narrative sense or audience identification. It's a composition more than a story, really, and probably best experienced as such.

I love the way things are always dividing -- it's such a big part of his vision that I don't experience his tricks as as antic or hyper. They don't seem gimmicky because his subject matter is partly how we think and dream -- we project ourselves, and then watch ourselves take on their own lives.

And it strikes me that he's talking about the role of technology in our projections, and about two different kinds of alienation -- industrial (ie., movie) era style alienation from ourselves (symbolized by the way movies are made of lots of individual images), and digital-era alienation (as in: everything, even individual images, is made of discrete bits).

In dreaming, watching movies, in creating digitally, our ideas and our selves are always falling apart, and his use of rear projection, of the many video screens, of circling dream-logic narratives, all heighten that sense. It's why (to my mind) the suspense form makes sense to him: because every moment is implicitly, necessarily suspenseful. It too might fall apart.

Another layer of splitting is present in this movie -- the relationship between the French (ie., art) point of view, and the American (ie., commercial) point of view. In a way, the film can be understood as an American guy going to France in order to do the kind of thing with American commercial themes and forms that the French did back in the New Wave days. Which adds its own element of dizziness to the mix.

All of this heightened and given form, really (because the story isn't doing it) by the organization and look of the movie -- inserting all sorts of transitory, flimsy-seeming cyber-architecture elements into a French context, while using the jewelry as a representative of something lasting, old and meaningful, with water being the fluid that holds the whole mix in suspension and adds its own dream-like qualities.

The American girl is of course interested in the jewelry only as a source of dough. I think what De Palma's proposing is that the gorgeous, healthy, completely assertive and self-interested new American girl is a product of this new digital age.

The girls (Nancy Allen , etc) in his earlier thrillers had souls. They were vulgar but touching -- real creatures of the movie era. We're now in the era of digital, everything's discrete bits, and it can often seem as though the poetry has been crushed out -- I'm patting myself (and De Palma too) on the back a bit for my reflections early in this blog's existence about the peculiar qualities of the computer-video image vs. the movie image.

Did you find the movie tizzy-giggly funny, like "Dressed to Kill"? It seemed to me very witty, in a surrealist way, but that the only real satire was in its view of the Romijn-Stamos character. De Palma is awestruck yet horrified: how can anything so beautiful be so utterly lacking in soul and poetry? They're more physically sexy than ever, but so out-there and self-interested that they're devoid of mystery.

So De Palma has backed away and become more reflective -- he's older anyway, and he seems happier working at more of a remove than he once did, orchestrating his notions and themes and visuals. Does the film seem a bit wistful to you? As though De Palma turned a corner, and now lives in a chillier universerse than he once did?

Like I say, I'm enjoying my brief moment of film-buff rapture here, so thanks for indulging me. I realize as I type these words that if I were a kid today, I wouldn't find movies fascinating -- I'd find the web fascinating. But in the same way? Maybe the reason the film didn't just fascinate me but also touched me is that, like De Palma, I've kind of moved on, but I still sometimes wonder where the poetry went.

So have you decided whether you enjoyed it or not?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2002 11:23 PM

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