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If You Can’t Say Anything Nice About Brian De Palma, Go Sit By My Mother

April 3, 2010

Nothing says Seize the day like staying in bed and watching Brian De Palma movies. De Palma’s movies are to me what Afterschool Specials are to other people.

De Palma’s earlier work is often peppered with misogynistic imagery, glorifying violence and specializing in zeroing on a moment and just taking it too fucking far. On that point you’ll get no debate from me. Having written extensively on the subject of De Palma’s complicated and often problematic content, I am in no way dismissive of this concern. That said, I find some of his stylistic choices quite interesting. And, hell, he tells a pretty decent story from time to time.

One Halloween I went as Brian De Palm Reader in a costume consisting of a caftan, a director’s chair, many jangly ropes of beads, a Fisher-Price camcorder and a very truculent disposition.

Only the camcorder was borrowed.

Of his diverse body of work, a little know gem called Home Movies is my favorite. It stars Keith Gordon, Nancy Allen and the late great Vincent Gardenia. Technically a collaboration between De Palma and film students, it has all the earmarks of his trademark style: Oddly framed shots, characters talking off screen, while the camera focuses on other objects (though he showed surprising restraint in this film) and taking shit too far. (while not a cinematic element, is definitely an integral aspect of his style.)

Reverse Shot had an amusing take on the film:

It’s a commonly held truth that you have to learn something before you unlearn it. It’s a lesson that Brian De Palma undoubtedly did not, but probably should have, imparted to his students before embarking on the school project that resulted in Home Movies (1980), a trouncing of basic narrative parameters made in part by kids who had never wielded a camera before. Sandwiched in between two of his most luxe signature thrillers, The Fury and Dressed to Kill, Home Movies was all at once a genre prank, somewhat of a self-professed elaborate joke, and an instructive school project, as investigative of the rules of filmmaking as anything De Palma ever wrapped his head around, yet as uncharacteristically disassembled as could be imagined. A true wrench in the works for the De Palma filmography, especially for aficionados who desperately try to recoup everything as part of a concrete whole, Home Movies is definitely traceable as a piece of De Palma mischief, but at best it seems a sketch, and at worst unwatchably, smugly makeshift, something that even De Palma’s most woebegone gambits avoid.

Seriously, tell us what you really think. Oddly, I wholeheartedly agree, though I still love this movie! I have way too many fond memories of watching it with my sister and laughing. I’m pretty sure at this point I had already seen CARRIE, but La Mommie had not yet introduced me to DRESS TO KILL. She would later do so as she watched me watch the preview guide one night back in the early 90s. Dress to Kill scrolled passed for the third time and she said, “That’s a good film. But that Brian De Palma!”

It would be the first time I would receive the “DePalma Lecture”.

My mother enjoys BDeP but must first always preface this by reminding me and anyone else in earshot that he does that violent sex/sexy violence thing and denounce his misogyny and obsession with violence. Then will proceed to wax on and on about The Untouchables.

It goes a little something like this:

“Oh that De Palma” said in a tone very similar to one a person might use to say, “Oh that Eddie Haskell!” Usually there’s a sigh and depending on the film the lecture might be deeply reflective or deeply dismissive. To be fair, any version is great, but the one used when a really provocative BDeP film is mentioned, just happens to be my favorite.

“Brian De Palma does that sexy violence/violent sexy thing and some times he just goes too far!” This always sound like a dissatisfied client complaining about her favorite hairdresser. The lecture is often riddled with caveats and grammatical landmines. Say the wrong thing and KABOOM.

I always say, “That’s so true, Ma.” because I don’t actually call her La Mommie and because, of course, it’s the right answer. Like me, La Mommie can seem deceptively lightweight when discussing pop culture, but she’s not. Heck, she made me the BDeP and Kube fan I am today. Yeah, send your complaint letters there. Though, I should also point out I gets my mellow harshing powers from her as well.

Tony doesn't look lucid enough to say hello to anyone.

The lecture – if we’re getting the unabridged version – then goes on to compare and contrast his films in order to effectively illustrate her point. There is usually mention of Caine in drag, Connery crawling across the floor dragging his vital organs behind him and possibly – if the dogs haven’t started any herky jerky – a mention of the “race against the sun” scene in Bram Stroker’s Dracula, which while not being a De Palma film, is one of HER favorite scenes, thus applicable to any discussion (even when it’s not).

“And the way Sean Connery just played that scene,” she might say, “he really earned that Oscar. He did win it for that, right? Still, I don’t think we needed all of that!” All of that, meaning the blood, the crawling on the floor, the vital organs trailing behind like streamers and the seventeen thousand shotgun blasts it took to win the Oscar.

The lecture might close with a nod to Mission Impossible and if so, this is my signal to reminiscence how once, while shopping at the Beverly Center, we spied the handsome actor – so handsome in real life that’s hard to believe it was actually him – Jean Reno shutting down a fabulous linen suit and his round-the-clock five o’clock shadow.

And so next on my list of BDeP faves…

Ethan Hunt meets Max

Mission Impossible. As an action thriller it is solid, but as a character study it is quite intriguing. Ignore Tom Cruise – believe me it’s surprisingly easy to do – and focus on the supporting characters and you will find sublime moments of acting perfection, namely from Jean Reno, Vanessa Redgrave and Henry Czerny

Rounding out the list are:

Sean and Kevin plot to take down DeNiro

The Untouchables a.k.a The Unwatchables. This is one of my watch-while-organizing-my-closet movies. The dialog, the overuse of a brassy horn score and the occasional brilliantly wacky zoom keep me engaged while folding Gap t-shirts and stretchie pants, but the ultra-violence makes me a little horky.

The Bonfire of the Vanities. It ain’t De Palma’s fault the damn thing was woefully miscast. It’s a much maligned (and deservingly so) film, but after a recent viewing it’s definitely no Ishtar. Look, Bruce Willis in an earnest hairpiece is usually a strong indication the film’s gonna be bursting at the seams with awful.

Carrie. For camp value alone, this is a sentimental favorite. It’s not even on my list of favorite horror movies. (The Shining has held the title for twenty-two years)

Most of you have watched De Palma’s work without realizing it. He directed Dancing in the Dark. Though to be fair, why would you immediately think of BDeP since nobody got stabbed, shot, drugged or had sex with a children’s birthday clown dressed in sequin hot pants?

I like to think my own life could be directed by Brian De Palma and just think of all the really cool split screen shots of me and La Mommie talking about his films!

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A version of this entry previous appeared on Snarky’s Machine

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2010 10:52 am

    Even though some of the films may be problematic, I still enjoy his “middle period,” including Body Double and Dressed to Kill (particularly Michael Caine, who’s I think is one hugely underrated actor). And who doesn’t like Scarface? “Say hello to my little friend.”

    Oh and any mention of “Home Movies” is incomplete IMO without the mention of Kirk Douglas’s entertaining performance as the Spartacus-ex-machina that keeps showing up over Gordon’s shoulder. Maybe I should call him Jiminy Kibitz.

    A version of this comment previously appeared on Snarky’s Machine

  2. April 3, 2010 1:36 pm

    Definitely think the stylistic choices are far more interesting during his middle period. Michael Caine is a hugely underrated actor.

    Scarface is nearly three hours long, which with my attention deficits is hard to deal with. That said, it’s a great film, though the way it’s been appropriated and its violence/misogyny glorified is trying at times.

    Oh and any mention of “Home Movies” is incomplete IMO without the mention of Kirk Douglas’s entertaining performance as the Spartacus-ex-machina that keeps showing up over Gordon’s shoulder. Maybe I should call him Jiminy Kibitz.

    LOL @ Spartacus-ex-machina!

    A version of this comment previous appeared on Snarky’s Machine

  3. April 3, 2010 1:41 pm

    Scarface is nearly three hours long, which with my attention deficits is hard to deal with.

    One of the things that makes De Palma’s long movies easier to watch is that before you nod off he tosses a nice warm bucket of blood in your face.

  4. April 4, 2010 7:22 pm

    He’s real good about keeping the blood flowing.

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