Monday, July 24, 2006

Brian De Palma

Along with Altman, De Palma is probably my favorite living American filmmaker. I’ve been meaning to write something about him for a while but oddly enough I find the intense aesthetic pleasure I get from his movies to be a bit…..daunting. I'm not sure I could ever do justice to those aesthetic rewards. So let me just start small, by pointing to a couple of things I value about his movies; I’ve revisited about ten of them in the last couple of weeks, so this is as good a time as any, while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Robin Wood once proposed that during some of the richest periods of art—the Renaissance, the Elizabethan theatre, the Vienna of Mozart—artists strove not to self-consciously and strenuously break with tradition but instead to collaborate with existing forms or conventions or genres, using them as pre-existing elements with which to build original works that were nevertheless infused with the artist’s personality. There’s a certain humility, a certain muting of egocentricity, in this act of collaboration. Speaking of Mulholland Drive, De Palma marveled at Lynch’s audacity in working completely outside audience expectation and convention. But De Palma himself would rather make movies a little more readily—if deceptively—accommodating of the audience, setting up expectations through familiar genre markers, only to continually complicate and subvert those expectations.

De Palma is always reminding us, coolly, insistently: “This is something else—this is....cinema.” So much that passes for cinema could conceivably be translated roughly, paraphrased reasonably, without catastrophic loss, into non-cinematic mediums. Not so with De Palma—almost every one of his scenes signals, self-consciously, the impossibility of this transposition. Some of his greatest scenes—the Sissy Spacek/William Katt dance at the prom in Carrie and the Craig Wasson/Deborah Shelton embrace outside the tunnel in Body Double, both shot with 360-degree orbiting camera swooning in unison with the players; the museum scene in Dressed To Kill; the motel sequence with three interacting levels of action at the climax of Raising Cain; the pool-room sequence in Carlito’s Way, etc.—are rapturous because they are distilled and intensified cinema, often emptied of words. They are like ecstatic arias that don't necessarily echo emotions inside the narrative but instead celebrate the sui generis powers of the medium.

Simultaneous with maximizing the cinematic potential of a narrative, De Palma wants to make us aware of the artifice involved in doing so. Thus, his use of stylization in the form of split screens, slow motion, unusual and striking camera angles clearly not mimicking the view of an ordinary observer, the presence of frames within frames, etc. The “manipulating hand” is never invisible, it wants to be seen—which is a morally responsible choice. Two quick and lesser-known examples of carefully distancing artifice: having Genevieve Bujold and Sissy Spacek play little-girl versions of themselves in Obsession and Carrie (the latter didn’t make the final cut of the film); or the last scene in the cemetery with Amy Irving in Carrie in which cars travel backward on the highway.

Since De Palma’s films are so self-consciously “composed,” the screen becomes an important element of the viewing experience. Bazin famously said—I’m paraphrasing here—that traditionally the screen has been thought of as a rectangle similar to the picture frame of a painting or the proscenium of a theater stage, both of which selectively include elements from the world outside. Instead, he remarked, Renoir saw the screen as an analogue of the camera viewfinder that excluded the world as much as it included it; the camera both reveals the world and conceals it. De Palma vividly illustrates this but with a twist: he makes the revealing and concealing blatantly apparent, calling attention to itself. In his split screens, for instance, he shows (“includes”) multiple views of an event, and his traveling long takes make for uninterrupted building of information; but at the same time, with his profuse use of POV shots, voyeuristic looking and “mystery and suspense” narratives, he shows the limitedness (“exclusion”) of what we (and the characters) are seeing. All the while, he is making visible the act of including and excluding. Once again, there’s a moral dimension to this choice.

* * *

Carlito’s Way is in some ways De Palma’s most heartfelt film. Just like Bresson gave away endings in the title of a film (A Man Escaped) or in the credit sequence (Pickpocket), Carlito’s Way’s first shot is the barrel of gun—John Leguizamo plugs Al Pacino at Grand Central Station, in slow motion. We circle back to Grand Central, via flashback, at the end. I always tell myself each time I watch the film that I will play clinical observer in this (virtuosic) climactic chase sequence, paying attention to camera angles, length of takes and cuts, but I’m always wrenched from my observational resolve, vacuum-sucked into its thrills.

Al Pacino performs the feat of playing an ex-druglord and killer with such melancholy and soul that he makes him almost saintly. His struggle to go straight, rise above his circumstance, reach his dream of selling Ford Pintos in the Bahamas—these could be corny beyond belief but instead become quite touching. Pacino’s blustery courtroom rehabilitation speech sounds ridiculous at first—Paul Mazursky the judge actually rolls his eyes—but how moving to find that every word of it is actually true!

De Palma likes to partition his images—sometimes literally, as we know, through split screens, and other times indirectly—carving them into distinct zones that unite, separate or encase characters. In the above image (which could easily be a split screen but is not), Pacino and Sean Penn are at a disco, talking to each other, mostly ignoring their dates. The left side of the frame plays up the allure of the women, with “romantic” lighting and a flash of décolletage; Pacino and Penn are to the far right, distant, unavailable, merely throwing their dates a quick bemused glance before resuming their conversation (Pacino tells Penn at one point: “If you was a broad, I’d marry you.”) This early image in the film sets up an alliance; future images will go to work on dismantling the alliance.

Serendipitous De Palma posts sprouting up in the blogosphere: Dennis Cozzalio on Femme Fatale in Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots project at Scanners; and Zach Campbell on The Fury. From a few years ago: a set of impressionistic appreciations of Carlito's Way at Senses Of Cinema.


Blogger Eric Henderson said...

Great, wonderful, brilliantly true!

Proof that De Palma is among the very greats is that we scarcely needed to organize a marathon blogpile to amass a collection of writings on the director. I'd write something soon, but I'm trying to convince Ed at Slant to start up a director page for him in the near future.

July 24, 2006 2:37 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I don't know if he's the greatest living American filmmaker besides Altman, but I do like him, I think he's terrific, and Carlito's Way grows on me in a way most '90s films don't, even grows on me where Scarface (which has this incredible and rather incomprehensible cult following) doesn't.

Looked through my stuff, and in my shame discovered I haven't covered his films at all, save for this article

July 24, 2006 4:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Eric & Noel--Thanks, guys.

Eric, there are unconscious, accidental De-Palma-Thons springing up all cool.
And as a canine-o-phile, how could I not link to the family+doggie calendar you just made?

There's some great disco in Carlito's Way. I just realized I should've had an mp3 component to this post but dropped the ball...

Noel, those Scarface cults are pretty baffling to me too. (The film also has a huge hip-hop subcuItural appeal.) I actually haven't seen it in over a dozen years, and have no idea how it holds up.

July 24, 2006 7:21 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

It always seemed to me that it was only the gangstas into Scarface; I haven't noticed it with the same level of approval in the conscious and the backpacker set. Maybe I just haven't been paying attention.

Given that the main character is a sexist macho capitalist, and that the film tends to get approving, even idolizing, mention--treating the film like a story of vision and heroism rather than waste and tragedy--it makes sense you'd have thugs and wannabe thugs saying "hey, that's my kind of movie." ... I guess because he made himself a fortune and went down shooting, and what more could you ask out of life?

I wonder if there's been any thesis done yet on the occurrences and meanings of references to film in hip hop. Could probably do a citation analysis and detect cultural trends and subgroups among all the artists.

July 24, 2006 8:47 AM  
Anonymous Peet said...

Girish, you have no idea how much it pleases me to read your positive notes on what I believe to be one of the most underrated/misunderstood American directors of all time.

We've been strong advocates of De Palma's cinema for quite a while now at 24LiesASecond (the title finds its origin in a De Palma quote). Under the Articles header, you can find the following De Palma related essays:

- The Shape of Substance: Brian De Palma and the Function of Form
- Casualties of Genre, Difference, and Vision: Casualties of War
- Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma
- The Plausibles: The Problems of Make-Believe in the Age of Reason

Also, be sure to check out the excellent website for essays, interviews and production notes.

July 24, 2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Good point, Tuwa. The Scarface cult in hip-hop is indeed confined to gangstas; I've never heard indie/backpacker hip-hoppers refer to it...

Thanks, Peet, for posting the link/articles. Your site is a great and valuable De Palma resource and I'm personally very thankful for its presence on the web!

July 24, 2006 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Very nice post, Girish, and interesting timing. I recently got my hands on several of De Palma's early films -- Dionysus in '69, Woton's Wake, The Responsive Eye, and Get to Know Your Rabbit -- and have been making notes for a post about them.

Have you seen any these? Dionysus in '69 is pretty damn impressive.

July 24, 2006 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, one of the many things I appreciate about this post is your admiration for De Palma's "rapturous" cinema-making, the way he stylizes his images to make the most out of the medium. That's what I enjoyed most about Femme Fatale; it's a movie deeply in love with the cinema, as if every frame were meant to show us how amazing the artifice of film can really be. I can't think of many (or perhaps any) American films in recent years that do this with such aplomb. (And I think the film is most "rapturous" about the cinema when the dialogue drops out, and De Palma just gives us words and music.)

July 24, 2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"Along with Altman, De Palma is probably my favorite living American filmmaker."

Wow, my respect for you just dropped immensely.

Charles Burnett?
Richard Linklater?
Mark Rappaport?
Caveh Zahedi?
Jerry Lewis?
James Benning?
Clint Eastwood?
Su Friedrich?
Greg Araki?

no......Altman and De terribly dull and predictable

July 24, 2006 12:27 PM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

epYeah, Carlito's Way did the disco revivalism thing well before Boogie Nights. Pretty great soundtrack, though I admit to preferring those of 54 and Summer of Sam.

As for the previous comment ... I don't want to get snippy but: what's not predictable about a cinephile calling Burnett, Linklater or Eastwood one of the great American filmmakers? And what is sane about calling Araki one?

I'll give you Jerry Lewis though, eliding the fact that he hasn't directed a movie in 23 years and will probably never direct one in the future.

July 24, 2006 12:42 PM  
Blogger Filmbrain said...

And what is sane about calling Araki one?

Well said. Couldn't agree more.

I also find it somewhat ridiculous to include Linklater and Zahedi in that list. Interesting directors, no doubt, but on par with Altman or De Palma? Hardly.

As for Eastwood.....well, my particular hatred of Million Dollar Baby is notorious. In fact I think his stature as director is vastly overrated.

July 24, 2006 1:57 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Girish, thanks for reminding me that I need to write about De Palma soon. I can still remember when I saw my first De Palma film. I had gone to the theater to see HIGH ANXIETY, was bored stiff within 10 minutes and walked into some film I'd never heard of called THE FURY. Mel Brooks for Brian De Palma still seems like a good trade-off to me.

Oh, by the way, my one degree of De Palma separation: Deborah Shelton was a bridesmaid at my uncle's wedding. Of course, I barely recall the wedding, since I was a little kid. Imagine the shock of my second encounter with her: BODY DOUBLE.

July 24, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

July 24, 2006 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

"As for the previous comment ... I don't want to get snippy but: what's not predictable about a cinephile calling Burnett, Linklater or Eastwood one of the great American filmmakers?"

Exactly. In addition, Girish is stating a personal preference and an appreciation for De Palma (and Altman), not arguing that they're any "greater" than those other directors. In my view, the kind of time-worn argument Alex is trying to make (if you can call it that; really, it's an unqualified list) completely misses the point.

July 24, 2006 3:29 PM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

Where oh-where is The Black Dahlia?

July 24, 2006 4:22 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"I also find it somewhat ridiculous to include Linklater and Zahedi in that list. Interesting directors, no doubt, but on par with Altman or De Palma? Hardly."

Re De Palma: It's long past time for American cinema to kill off our debilitating addiction to Hitchcock. Enough is enough. We've been stuck in 1955-1960 long enough. Time (actually, 40 years past time) to move on.

Re Altman: I like Altman, but he lacks something to be the greatest (probably that something has to do with the fact that Altman seems to despise most of his characters). And I don't think he has much to say to our time, he's a relic of the past to some extent.

Linklater, Zahedi and Araki at least have the virtue of making movies about our own time, not nostalgia about times 40 or 50 more years ago.

July 24, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, guys.

Filmbrain, alas I haven't seen those films but I look forward to your post. I'd love to catch up with the films some day.

Michael: "De Palma's "rapturous" cinema-making, the way he stylizes his images to make the most out of the medium." Exactly, Michael. This is what I love most about his films. And as you say, it's often the wordless segments that are richest.

Eric, I know the soundtrack to neither 54 nor Summer Of Sam. Clearly, I need to get 'em.

TLRHB--That Deborah Shelton story blows my mind. For real? This is the only movie I've seen her in. Naturally, I'm in love with her.

Phyrephox--Black Dahlia is premiering at Venice, so I'm hoping it also plays Toronto.

"Wow, my respect for you just dropped immensely."
Let me just say this:
My respect for you wouldn't drop so casually.

July 24, 2006 5:00 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Linklater, Zahedi and Araki at least have the virtue of making movies about our own time, not nostalgia about times 40 or 50 more years ago.

Are you speaking of their technique as directors, or of their subject matter?

Either way, that (on its own) is not a valid criterion with which to assess the "greatness" of directors, is it?

Altman, De Palma, Scorsese etc. -- these guys grew up with film, including an incredible appreciation for those that came before them. Sure, their films do pay tribute to past masters, but each has brought something unique to the game, and they transcended the genres/styles they were working in -- otherwise they would have been written off as merely derivative, and long forgotten. (Think of all the Tarantino clones circa early 90s. How many of them have become household names?)

Zahedi may be the king of narcissistic filmmaking, and Araki the master of the gay Afterschool Special, but neither has brought a whole lot to the table vis-à-vis advancing the artform like Altman & co. (At least that's my opinion.)

How do you feel about someone like Todd Haynes? Here's a young(ish) contemporary director whose best film was a period piece homage to a decade you believe we are "stuck" in. Was that mere nostalgia, and does Haynes too need to "move on"?

As for Altman not having "much to say to our time", -- yes, Prairie Home Companion is nostalgic, but you can't deny that M*A*S*H*, Short Cuts, Health, Nashville (to name a few), were nothing if not biting satires of (or comments on) the status quo.

July 24, 2006 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Except for The Responsive Eye, I've seen the early De Palma films mentioned by Filmbrain. I attended an NYU film student screening of Dionysus in 69 with De Palma present.

A favorite De Palma moment: William Finley takes what appears to be a pratfall in Sisters except the moment suddenly becomes serious when we see the blood on his forehead. A great blend of humor and horror within a couple of seconds.

July 24, 2006 5:41 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

American cinema is stuck in a rut of endlessly revising Hitchcock and misinterpreting film noir. Revolution is necessary. De Palma and other resurrectionists of the dead and very smelly corpse of Hitchcock are irrelevant and perverse.

Altman is burnt-out. He makes movies for times that are long past - see his Tanner '88 - this is a man who simply cannot understand modern politics. I admire the Altman of long ago, but there is no more living Altman to admire.

These directors are already dead - their art is dead and goes nowhere.

July 24, 2006 6:02 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Oh yeah, for real.

Some of her more revealing Cinemax-style movies should still be out there for rental....

July 24, 2006 6:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Round-Headed Boy--You know, I bet Shelton wouldn't look quite as alluring in anything else as in Body Double. It has to do with the way De Palma hides her in plain sight behind large glasses, shooting her from a distance and withholding close-ups of her. I remember her, but not quite distinctly, which is exactly the way it was intended to be (for both Jake Scully and for us, the audience).

July 24, 2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger David said...

De Palma owes everything to Hitchcock, but who doesn't? Even Bresson and Antonioni are getting constant comparisons, but De Palma, because he cites his sources (which include Antonioni), is considered derivative, which seems proposterous to me. His movies are gleeful mash-ups of blood, sex, and movies, overwrought psychoses, and political undertones (which Hitchcock never touched), told with rambling cameras, and swooning sweeping crane shots that remind me just as much of Godard or Busby Berkeley as Alfred Hitchcock. Where Hitchcock is naughty, De Palma is dirty, a winking ringleader at the greatest freak show of all time. Almost all of De Palma's movies can be enjoyed as cinema for the sake of cinema--Scarface may be the most fun the gangster genre ever had--but he has a genuine love for his characters as stock characters, reduced to their obvious thoughts and emotions as they get carried away by them. De Palma gets carried away too--and that's the point. I'll second him as greatest living American filmmaker.

July 24, 2006 9:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Scorcese - another slowly moldering corpse who doesn't realize that he's long been dead. Damn zombies.

July 24, 2006 9:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Alex, don't get all fucking spooky on me, man.

July 24, 2006 9:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"he has a genuine love for his characters as stock characters, reduced to their obvious thoughts and emotions as they get carried away by them. De Palma gets carried away too--and that's the point."

David, that's a great point. Never looked at it that way but it's true.

July 24, 2006 9:46 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Did somebody run over Alex's dog last week or something? Geez ...

Regarding De Palma, let me open with a reading from the Book of Brenez: both Godard and DP are necessary "because the former in the mode of the ssay and the latter in the realm of fiction have thoroughly explored the economy of images. They show through the medium of images themselves how these images appear limited, how they differ from one another in the context of the same film, then the logical ways one can crack them open, compare, complete, transform, exhaust, convert them. ... In the cases of Godard and De Palma alike, it's neither a referential overload nor an abandonment of reality and life in my view, but the two critical enterprises at work together which, in themselves, are necessary and vital to the understanding of the powers of cinema."

Haven't we gone over the list of greatest living American filmmakers at Girish's before? I think I'd pick Ferrara, though an avant-gardist like Robert Breer or Bruce Conner or Kenneth Anger might be more worthy ... or who knows, maybe it's somebody else whose work I've only seen a few samples of (e.g. Jon Jost), etc. ...

I'd put De Palma in the next highest tier.

July 24, 2006 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Damn, Alex, disrespecting Girish is a punk move, but I think I agree with you for the most part, otherwise. I like one or two films each by Altman and Scorcese; there isn't any one DePalma film that I'm especially drawn to. In your first comment you happen to have mentioned many of my favorite American filmmakers, but it had never occured to me that they "make movies for our own time." I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but it's got me thinking. I'm certainly drawn to something in their films, just as I'm left cold by the surivors of the '60s and '70s.

By the way, Girish, you know that story you tell of happening upon a screening of Emmanuelle at a fairly young age? Body Double is my Emmanuelle. (Melanie Griffith's plastic surgery kills the horny 12-year-old still living inside of me.)

July 24, 2006 10:40 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Darren - You ought to give warning before posting links like that, especially if the reader is drinking something. Scary stuff. Spit take all over my monitor. . .

Scorcese - another slowly moldering corpse who doesn't realize that he's long been dead.

LOL! Now I know Alex is pulling our collective leg.

July 24, 2006 10:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren: "Body Double is my Emmanuelle."
Really? I didn't know.
Wow, the difference in release dates reminds me that we're about 10 years apart...

Filmbrain: "LOL! Now I know Alex is pulling our collective leg."
Um, I don't think so. :-)

Zach: "it's neither a referential overload nor an abandonment of reality and life in my view, but the two critical enterprises at work together which, in themselves, are necessary and vital to the understanding of the powers of cinema."

Interesting quote.
Zach, what is an example of a film or filmmaker with "referential overload"? What does that mean, exactly?

July 24, 2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

There's still so much De Palma I haven't seen, but he's still near the top of my own American filmmaker canon, too. With Altman. (but not Scorsese, not yet, though I don't find anything particluarly ghoulish about his continuing dialogue with cinema of the past)

I'm glad Burnett and Benning got name-checked even if I haven't seen many of their films yet (that goes for Zahedi too). Can I add Wiseman?

As for filmmakers whose complete or near-complete body of work I've managed to see, I offer Jarmusch, Lynch, and of course Malick.

And Conner, who Zach mentioned and who I'm working on writing about for next week's party hereabouts.

July 25, 2006 12:55 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I told myself not to enter this fray. Too heated, too subjective. I loathed both Hi, Mom! and Greetings when they were mainstays on the midnight show circuit back in the ‘70s. And Carrie was such a blatant mix of Hitchcock with perfume commercial aesthetic, that I could never take DePalma seriously again — some thirty years ago. Obsession was a droning dog, Phantom of the Paradise played like second-rate Ken Russell. To these eyes, it was all downhill from there.

That anyone could defend Femme Fatale is simply beyond my understanding. And am I the only person who was bored stiff during Scarface? There may be a preconceived ‘style’ in DePalma that presumably begs for laboriously extended slo-mo pans, Mickey Mousing musical cues, and overwrought performances. We could go on about the misogyny that runs rampant in his films, but wouldn’t that take the ‘fun’ out of this? Or perhaps I should be taken out into a field and shot (or drilled), I’m so completely out of touch.

July 25, 2006 5:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Brian and Flickhead ~ Thanks, hombres.

You know, one thing I hate about being a cinephile who doesn't live in a large city like NYC, SF or LA is poor access to American (or any other) avant-garde. The guys Zach name-checked are pretty much only names to me. And I'm glad Brian will write about Bruce Conner in the avant-garde blog-a-thon next week. Who knows when I'll be able to catch up with Conner's work but when I do, I'll have some writings which'll help me appreciate it better.

July 25, 2006 6:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Some links:

--Doug Cummings post at Greencine Daily while David Hudson's vacationing.
--Summer listening at Michael's.
--Andy on the different stages of watching a film.
--Tex Avery YouTube links at Round-Headed Boy's.

July 25, 2006 7:20 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

what is an example of a film or filmmaker with "referential overload"? What does that mean, exactly?

Well, I imagine Brenez means it literally--that JLG and BDP are neither trying to present a dense network of solely allusions, borrowings, homages, analyses, and other references (an "overload"), nor are they trying to ignore this approach for the benefit of describing or "life or reality," without acknowledgment of other imagistic 'mediations'--they're trying to find a balance between both. That's how I take it.

Flickhead--to each his own, but maybe we can get you to come around, just a little bit, one day. The standard charges of DP's misogyny and his apparently thoughtless Hitchcock homage/rip-off/copying are the two (in my strong opinion) canards that one needs to jump like hurdles to appreciate De Palma. Though I adore both Hi, Mom! and Femme Fatale, I will say that I don't think Scarface is particularly impressive (Carlito's Way has it beat!), and I agree with you about Phantom of the Paradise.

As for Conner, Anger, and Breer--it's nowhere near an ideal way to see their work, obviously, but if one hasn't seen anything by them, I think YouTube has some videos for each of these guys. I strongly suspect Breer would translate least well to video/digital formats, but then again he's the only one of these three whose work I've only seen on film, so that's an educated guess, not an empirical observation. Guess I'll have to look at those YouTube vids of his work to see if any of him survives.

July 25, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Zach. I'll be sure to check out YouTube for their work though I realize it would be a very sub-optimal way to encounter it.

In fact, it would be totally cool if some avant-garde blog/site kept a list of YouTube links with some comments on quality,'d be a nice resource to have.

July 25, 2006 9:37 AM  
Anonymous Jim Emerson said...

Great post, girish -- so glad you're back after a Whole Week! And this must surely be "Kismet" (Preston Sturges to Jean Arthur in "Easy Living," 1937): I was just saying to a friend over the weekend that you may be able to call yourself a "cinephile" and not appreciate De Palma -- but you can't be a cinephiliac if you don't dig De Palma! (He and his safari jacket are always seen between press & industry screenings at the Toronto Film Fest.) You've inspired me to order "Raising Cain" (I thought it was out of print, but it's on Amazon now) -- that motel sequence is one of my favorite De Palma set pieces. AND I've got to go find my loooong program notes for "Greetings" and "Hi Mom!" that I wrote when we did a De Palma series at the University of Washington... about 25 years ago!

July 25, 2006 1:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Jim.

Yeah, I've often seen De Palma in his safari jacket riding the escalators or strolling around at TIFF. I read somewhere that he goes every year (even when he doesn't have a film), stays for the whole period and does it just to catch up on a lot of movie-watching.

And if your programme notes of Hi, Mom! and Greetings ever make it electronic form, I'd love a copy.

July 25, 2006 3:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And Joshua Gibson of Fagistan just left a comment on the Ingmar Bergman thread where Bergman made that homosexual crack.

July 25, 2006 3:15 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

I'll never forget the sound of boots on pavement from Femme Fatale.

The man is obsessed with detail...sometimes to a fault.

July 25, 2006 4:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Barry: Or the moment he cuts every sound in the prom dance hall (hundreds of people cheering) and leaves only the sound of the creak of rope and bucket poised over Carrie's head, ready to tip.

July 25, 2006 7:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, this awesome.
It collects (in large pdf's; it would make sense to access these only if you have broadband) archived mimeographed film reviews for film society screenings from, like, the 70s.
There's tons of good reading here. Could keep one busy for months.

July 25, 2006 8:10 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Burnett, absolutely. Not a fan of Araki, until Mysterious Skin, when he started working on material he didn't write. Eastwood--wow, talk about old-fashioned cinema. No, not a fan, and I particularly despise Million Dollar Baby.

July 25, 2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Thanks for that incredible link, girish! Talk about a wide variety of films discussed!

You'll probably want to know that I've finally put up my announcement for an August 21 Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon.

July 26, 2006 3:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ooh nice, Brian.
Count me in!
I've written almost nothing about animation, so this will be a good way for me to get my feet wet.

July 26, 2006 9:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, it's been a crazy-busy couple of days and I haven't had a chance to respond to Alex. There are a couple of things I wanted to say to him (if he's still reading):

Hey Alex:

(1) Good criticism is not tossing off lazily a half-dozen bunch of names off the top of your head, as you've done here.

I just wrote a bloated fucking 1000-word post trying to support with some attempts at critical thought my taste for De Palma. You go do that for the directors you name-checked and then we'll continue the critical conversation.

And (2) Listen: you need to learn yourself some elementary social interaction skills, man. This is not the first time I've seen you in action, and you come off as an abrasive crank, wearing your blustery lack of politeness and lack of respect on your sleeve. These skills are especially important on-line, when people can't actually see you or hear your tone of voice and cut you the slack that your friends would, face-to-face.

The reason so many people gather here to interact has a lot to do with the mutual respect we all accord each other. If you continue to be disrespectful here, I'll get in your face and be a relentless ball-buster until you learn. I don't tolerate disrespect from my students or colleagues and I sure as shit ain't tolerating it from you.

July 26, 2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Please make sure y'all click on the link above that Brian posted for the Friz Freleng blog-a-thon he's hosting.
And here's the utterly tireless Michael Guillen with an interview with Amos Gitai.

July 26, 2006 10:01 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, in a couple of hours, I'm off to Toronto to (1) catch the new Andy Warhol exhibit there curated by David Cronenberg, (2) see a Susan Sontag favorite, AN INN IN TOKYO by Gosho, and (3) attend an Arthur Nolletti lecture on Gosho. (I've seen nothing by him.)
Hopefully--Lotsa blogging material!

July 26, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

"The reason so many people gather here to interact has a lot to do with the mutual respect we all accord each other. If you continue to be disrespectful here, I'll get in your face and be a relentless ball-buster until you learn. I don't tolerate disrespect from my students or colleagues and I sure as shit ain't tolerating it from you."

Here's the problem: bourgie "politeness" isn't a fair playing field either. (I would argue there's no such thing as a fair playing field - it doesn't exist, and it's just another tool to suppress others). Which is fine - supressing others is the central action of life - but there's not much need to prettify it with the words "politeness" or "respect".

My politeness to you or viceversa is largely irrelevant in an environment where a powerful industry takes every opportunity to throw everybody but a handful against the wall.

If we don't get angry and in each others' faces, we're meaningless - we might as well be a crumpet admiration and tea ceremony society (no problem with that, but it's good to know what one is). Our anger is just about the only tool we have against our mutual oppressors.

Your focus on verbal disrespect allows you to avoid confronting that the film industry disrespects you, urinates in all of our faces every single moment. Powerless people (you, I and everyone here) often prefer to avoid direct confrontation with that. That's natural. But we do need to keep focus on whose boot is slamming into whose face. It isn't my boot (or vice versa) but a powerful industry that takes every opportunity to shit on our heads.

Girish, you are disrespected everyday every second by Hollywood and YOU (apparently) LOVE IT. You do, I suppose even I do, everybody does. If we didn't, we'd be rioting in the streets (which wouldn't a bad thing, overall) - since what that industry does to us is merely one tiny subsegment of what our entire social system does to nearly everyone everywhere.

Your busting of my balls is rather comical considering that the film industry crushed Robert Altman's balls for 30 years. Shouldn't your ball-crushing activities be directed at those who actually crush other people's balls in a real sense?

July 26, 2006 2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comrade Burrito is correct. The constant inabilty of deluded so-called Kapitalist film critics to see that so-called "entertaining" and "artistic" films are really cinematic chains to enslave the so called Amerikan "People" -- will no doubt result in their being among the first, if not the first, to be placed against the metroplex walls when the revolution comes.

Why anyone would defend De Palma is beyond this media worker!! -- who like his idol Hitchcock, is shot through with latent (and possibly homosexual) Catholicism. De Palma is obviously so ignorant of (or more sinisterly, actively obscuring) Gramsci's ideas on hegemonic tyranny of revolutionary consciousness.

His split screens imply that there is a dual reality to History -- a ludicrous idea easily disproved by the scientific films of the Groupe Dziga Vertov.

Don't waste another minute picking over these idiotic counter-revolutionary films -- we must tie the laces of the hollywood boot that we lick -- the better to laugh when the colossus falls.

Comrades!! You have nothing to lose but your eyes!

July 26, 2006 3:46 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

July 26, 2006 3:54 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Unfashionably red though it may seem of me, I more-or-less agree with Alex's anti-Hollywood rant (just like I mostly endorse his favorite living American filmmakers). But I fail to see at all why Alex's raging against the machine justifies the fact that he snapped petulantly at Girish for having DP & Altman as favorite filmmakers instead of Alex's own choices. (Here's a conundrum--if Girish identified De Palma and Rappaport as his two favorites, would Alex maintain his bourgeois politeness or not? Would he become only 50% ruder? Oh, ths suspense!) If Girish is a victim of Hollywood and society's very real disrespect as Alex claims (and as I agree), then aren't Alex, Girish, and all of us in the same boat--and isn't Alex one to follow his own advice, and direct his ball-busting energies at those who really deserve it, and not at one of the most easily likable people in the blogosphere, whose writings are hardly a cornerstone of the Internet's role in the global capitalist complex?

July 26, 2006 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comrade Campbell:

Subtle distinctions between supposedly left aligned "cyber-people" like Girish and DePalma are utterly bourgeois. There is no place in the revolution, my deluded friend, for these kinds of wimpass trotskyite distinctions.

July 26, 2006 4:09 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Anonymous Comrade, you may be right. The key is to be dialectically scientific, and scientifically dialectic! If you need me I'll be in the corner with an icepick in my head.

(Maybe we need a blog-a-thon for unabashedly left-wing films. It'd be so hot to write on Winstanley.)

July 26, 2006 4:14 PM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

My God, it's like I'm back in college again...

July 26, 2006 4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think we need to use icepicks today, Comrade? Ha! In this modern scientific era we just force people to watch North Korean Films.

July 26, 2006 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comrade Horbal:

If you think your "college education" protects you from licking the hollywood boot -- you really are naive and revanchist. It's four-eyes like you that were packed off toutdesuite to the killing fields by Comrade Pot.

July 26, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, I just got into a Canadian coffeeshop and figured out how to work the wi-fi.

This is fuckin' hilarious...
It is like being in college again (a lot longer back for me than for you, Andy).

July 26, 2006 4:27 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Comrades are heavy on abstract obfuscation but don't know the appropriate ways to wage the revolution. ;)

I agree with Girish, it was very casual to stigmatize this one post with a global war on Capital...

Best American director, Hollywood hegemony and De Palma would be more constructive topics if discussed individually.
I'm all for assertive arrogance in criticism (which I use often enough) to stress the urgency and priority of issues, as long as it stays on opinions and away from Ad Hominem.

Anyway what I'd like to take notice of from all this noise:
The timely relevance of a film in its time and space. (i.e. Daney's La Fonction Critique : Who says What, but where and When?)
Recit/énoncé (context of the story)
Enunciation (context of the making of the film)
Personally I wouldn't apply this scrutiny to every movie. Before we should determine the purpose/role of the movie among others made at the same time. Not every movie must be political, IMHO. But it's an interesting angle to consider, with more or less emphasis.

just my 2 cents before it gets nasty.

July 26, 2006 7:24 PM  
Anonymous Apparatchik Filmbrain said...

My God, it's like I'm back in college again...

And Freshman year at that.

There's a huge difference between the Hollywood that urinates in our faces and the work De Palma, Altman & co.

And speaking of cinematic micturition, I find it amusing that Alex had Eastwood on his list of greats. Million Dollar Baby was a golden shower of pain and manipulation -- Hollywood at its boot slamming best.

I must ask then -- are James Benning's films great simply because they are anti-Hollywood machine, or do you genuinely love looking at lakes and skies?

July 26, 2006 9:46 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Filmbrain's got a point: how much more Hollywood can you get than Eastwood and Million Dollar Baby.

And yeah--what does civility have to do with the imperialist capitalist apparatus? How about a thousand word essay on that?

July 27, 2006 3:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey Alex. I want to say a couple of things:

--I fully agree with you that we get treated with disrespect by Hollywood every single day.

--And let's face it: We are both bourgeois at heart, otherwise, as you said, we'd be fighting Hollywood (and larger capitalistic) disrespect by doing something about it, like rioting in the streets.

--I was out of line for getting my feelings hurt at your rudeness and responding with an extra-vigorous protestation. You were out of line for the initial rudeness.

--As a brown-skinned foreigner moving to the States and making a life here, I've seen plenty of arbitrary and capricious personal disrespect. I'm sensitive to this, which is why I go out of my way to treat others--especially those I consider myself to be allied with--with personal respect.

--I appeal to you to consider this point: this blog is my personal home on the web. It is that first, and a sort of unofficial cinephile bulletin board second. If I, a stranger, walked into your house, where you live, and started being rude to you out of the blue, you wouldn't praise me for being revolutionary, you'd ask me to cut it out!

--All I ask is for you to treat me with respect in my own home. And I in turn promise to do that in return to you.

--There: I've said everything I had in my heart.

July 27, 2006 7:51 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

The new issue of Rouge is up, comrades. I don't know how Martin & Co. outdo themselves time after time.

July 27, 2006 10:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ooh nice.
This is horribly unenvironmentally-conscious of me but I've been printing off hard copies of Rouge essays so that I can sometimes carry them around with me, mark them up, etc. and file them afterwards for future return.

July 27, 2006 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Barry said...

--As a brown-skinned foreigner moving to the States and making a life here, I've seen plenty of arbitrary and capricious personal disrespect. I'm sensitive to this, which is why I go out of my way to treat others--especially those I consider myself to be allied with--with personal respect.

Well put G

July 27, 2006 1:05 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

The trailer for DePalma's latest looks pretty swell.

July 27, 2006 3:23 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I think it's also a cultural thing, girish, and as not just a burgis but an Asian I can relate: courtesy is prized, civility something we expect from people we are civil to in return; and if someone has something interesting to say, we believe he says it best courteously, otherwise he's distracting from his message (Hey dudes! I'm shitting in my pants and tossin it atcha!) and appearing immature. This thing of trying to shake things up without even knowing what's really going on seems so, well, Western.

Plus an insult is best when served without the recepient really knowing it. Subtlety is all.

July 27, 2006 3:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David ~ Wow. Hadn't seen that. Thank you.
Noel ~ This one, as I indicated, came straight from the heart. No insult intended at all.

July 27, 2006 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

"Wow. Hadn't seen that. Thank you."

Yeah, I hadn't seen that trailer either. Looks great. Hadn't realized until I saw the trailer that it's based on Ellroy's novel. Looking forward to it (online, I found a release date of 9/15).

July 27, 2006 5:18 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

**tiptoes in, asks diffidently** Bell ring, round over? Is this where I get to express my admiration for Casualties of War?

July 27, 2006 6:19 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

adding ... I would re-watch this one, if I thought I could stand it, in light of the horrific case going on in Iraq right now. I think the gentleman at 24 Lies Per Second nails what I got from the film when he talks about the death of the soldier Brownie:

As the only American casualty at the hands of the enemy in a film populated with Vietnamese killings, Brownie's death implicitly critiques the motivating strategies of films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and 84 Charlie MoPic, whose narratives and structures of suspense focus primarily on GI casualties and effectively rewrite the history of the Vietnam struggle as the history of American suffering. Leaving Brownie behind, Casualties of War will in fact take the opposite course, by focusing on a Vietnamese casualty and redirecting viewer sympathy for the enemy, thereby transforming the protagonists of this early sequence into antagonists later on. The "schizophrenic" Vietnamese, whom Brownie affirms cannot be trusted, will be outdone by their "dubious" American liberators.

July 27, 2006 6:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey there Campaspe.
Hope you been well. We've missed you.
I haven't seen "Casualties" since it opened more than 15 years ago.
Great excerpt, btw.

Michael, in that case the new one will probably open in/around TIFF....

July 27, 2006 7:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, I've read almost no Daney. Were you quoting from a particular essay?

There is a collection of Daney articles translated into English at Steve Erickson's site (scroll about two-thirds of the way down) that I've been meaning to delve into.
And here is a blog called Serge Daney in English.

July 27, 2006 11:04 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I haven't read much from Daney either... I found this essential text in a Cahiers anthology on essays dealing with criticism issues.

"The critical function" I referended to, which spans 4 issues of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1974, is listed on the Daney blog, Volume IV. Apparently you can read it in English on Amazon

July 28, 2006 8:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

Isn't that De Palma's voice in the trailer as the director asking if she's capable of playing sadness?

July 30, 2006 11:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...


July 30, 2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

This is what i get for being out of touch-- I missed this post and this comments string until such point as it's probably all played out.

Even so, I have to say, Girish, that I'm behind your Altman and De Palma picks all the way (no big surprise, I suppose). And thank you for expressing, in such an obviously sincere way, your feelings about the disrespect that you encounter and observe in everyday life, and how you want this blog, your personal space on the Web, to be somehow different than that, like your home. It is an admirable thing to try to maintain that quality and to cultivate an atmosphere of respect for other people's views in a home where, as you said, anybody can come walking in and not care a damn about the kind of atmosphere the homeowner has built.

What you're doing here is not about fostering some sort of lame mutual admiration society-- there's plenty of room for opposing views on this site, and from the respectful, yet differing opinions offered by the regulars that have chimed in here, that's abundantly clear. What's important is that there is this place where free thinking is welcomed, not chastised or dumped on at the first opportunity for the host or someone else to show how smart he/she is by condemning the work or opinions of others. And even in coming down on Alex yourself, when you had finally had enough, you did so not by calling him a smelly assortment of nasty names (hello, Kevin Smith), but by asserting your hopes for this site in particular, and by calling into question his own spurious methods (if bursting onto a scene, ripping on people and casually name-dropping directors that are "better" without ever explaining why can be called a "method"-- what was it that Captain Willard said to Colonel Kurtz? "I see... no method... at all, sir.")

(By the way, I love Eastwood as a director and a star, and I thought Million Dollar Baby was pretty wonderful, even while I can recognize its roots and is flaws.)

So, bravo to what you've achieved here so far with this blog, and to the genial yet challenging atmosphere you continue to foster. Girish, the site, is a role model for the kind of attitude I hope comes through on my own site. And triple bravos for the De Palma post and all the excitement over this filmmaker, who is still as vital and fascinating today as ever.

Even though I'm supposedly on a brief sabbatical from blogging, I can't NOT post a link to this piece!

(And thanks, David, for that link to the trailer-- I'm off to see it right now!)

July 30, 2006 1:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey there, Dennis.
Thank you for your kind and generous words.
You know--they mean a lot to me...

July 30, 2006 11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post on one of my very favorite filmmakers girish, but I do question the following: "The 'manipulating hand' is never invisible, it wants to be seen—which is a morally responsible choice."

Why is this a *morally* responsible choice? Does this mean that a filmmaker who chooses a more transparent, "invisible" style of filmmaking (Renoir, for example) is somehow immoral? Maybe you just got carried away with your own argument, but making differences in style a moral issue seems bogus to me. Let's just keep it an aesthetic issue -- or maybe you can explain more fully?

August 11, 2006 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Sorry, I didn't think I was being anonymous when I posted the above.

August 11, 2006 3:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, Steve. Thanks for the comment.
Sorry for using a loaded word and not explaining!
I was intending to devote a little paragraph to it but then the post got really large and I decided not to.

Okay, here's what I had in mind.

--I meant "moral" in a Brechtian sense. When a style prominently calls attention to itself, we as viewers are no longer sucked illusionistically (and unreflectively, Brecht might say) into the narrative. We are held at a distance, and are more likely to contemplate the work as an artifical construct rather than treat is as something to plunge into and identify emotionally with (through specific characters).

--By doing this (reflecting), we see that De Palma plays with ideas from film history (e.g. depiction of women in various genres like horror or noir rather than just "naturalistically" depicting women--just an example). De Palma's films are as much about ideas (about film, storytelling, voyeurism, gender depiction, violence, beauty) as they are narratives.

--Being a reflective viewer rather than a viewer absorbed unthinkingly and totally emotionally in the narrative, makes for a more morally and politically observant and responsible viewing stance (Brecht would say, and I'd agree).

--This is not to say that we don't respond to films emotionally but instead that we respond to them in a complex way, both emotionally and intellectually. When a film has a style that calls attention to itself, it forces us to reflect upon it. If it doesn't, it's invisible, and we tend to not reflect upon it as much.

--You are correct that DP has a less invisible style than Renoir but I would not call Renoir's style invisible or transparent. His long takes were very unique and stylistically daring for their period and jump out and call attention to themselves. (I have an entire post on the long take, Renoir and Bazin here). Long takes, Bazin would say, manipulate the viewer less than montage-based cinema, and could thus be seen as a more morally/politically responsible stylistic choice. (You are not guiding the viewer's eye, but allowing the viewer to make sense of the frame and its contents, not to mention preserving the dramatic unity of time of space, by not cutting frequently).

--By invisible style, I meant that of classical Hollywood cinema.

--Having an invisible style itself does not have to be a politically irresponsible choice (at all). Hawks is a great example of a filmmaker with a technique that doesn't draw attention to itself, but is all the same a wonderfully humanistic filmmaker.

--Hope that helped a bit in explanation...

August 11, 2006 10:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

btw, just wondering: is this Steve Carlson?

August 11, 2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Meant to say: dramatic unity of time AND space.

August 11, 2006 10:35 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Thanks for the comment girish. Sorry, not Steve Carlson -- I'm Steve Warrick.

I certainly agree with you that De Palma uses Brechtian distancing devices in many of his movies, though I never fully understood or bought Brecht's argument that this lead to a heightened political/social/moral consciousness. Your comment points out my problem with this whole line of argument: if the more artificial/theatrical De Palma and the more naturalistic/"invisible" Hawks can be equally "moral," then you can't really say that one *style* is more morally responsible than another, can you? Morality would seem to me to be embedded in the interplay of style and content. And many would argue that De Palma's movies are morally suspect because of their content (though personally I'm always happy to defend them on those grounds).

I would also point that Bazin's idea of what is a moral style seems opposed to Brecht's (accepting for the moment your description of Bazin's argument;I don't have my What is Cinema handy). Bazin disapproves of manipulating the viewer; Brecht certainly does not. Montage is a style calls attention to itself and distances us from the narrative, even as it elicits an emotional response. Brecht surely would have approved, and seen this as moral by his definition, whereas Bazin views this as suspect.

August 14, 2006 3:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, Steve. Thanks for your points.

Some thoughts:

--My Hawks example was meant to be an exception. It is despite the invisibility of his framing and cutting that Hawks' morality shows through: by means of his characters and their interactions, by which he expresses his attitude (I'd argue) toward humanity. But most filmmakers of Hollywood classical cinema are not on the level of Hawks (at all) in this respect--he is (for me) one of the greatest Hollywood filmmakers ever. So, Hawks was not meant as a typical example, but an exception to it.

--Rather than saying that DP's films are "morally suspect" (which as a DP fan, I find derogatory), I'd say they are morally ambiguous (and productively so, if a viewer is willing to engage constructively with the contradictions therein).

--Bazin's philosophy of cinema is merely one philosophy of cinema, and one I would not take and apply to all filmmakers, doctrinaire fashion. He would not approve of most of the filmmakers I adore (beginning with De Palma!). I used Bazin as an example to respond to your point that Renoir's style was invisible (which I don't think it is).

August 14, 2006 4:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

By the way, I don't at all mean to imply that having a visible style automatically equals morally responsible filmmaking! Merely, that it can be more easily used for that purpose, by distanciation and spurring reflection in the viewer (Godard is a pre-eminent example of this in cinema). An invisible, transparent style that hides itself (used in thousands of Hollywood classical films) is not a politically neutral style! It has political implications--it lulls the viewer, aids escapism, does not look to confront the viewer with issues and does not set out to spur reflection in the viewer....and Godard's films are a classic case of a counter-cinema in this respect. (DP's early interviews cite Godard, constantly.)

August 14, 2006 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Just to be clear, I don't personally think that De Palma's cinema is morally suspect. I was just pointing out that many people say that. Like you, I disagree with them.

I agree with you so completely about De Palma that it may seem like I'm picking nits with your post. But, since I'm naturally surly and ungrateful--

To take up another issue, I can't get behind your assumption that classical Hollywood style is necessarily an invisible style -- or even that there's a single classical Hollywood style. Huston, Welles, Zinnemann, Hitchcock, Vidor, Wyler, Hawks, Cukor, Stevens, Fleming -- all classical Hollywood directors, but do they all share a single invisible style? I don't think so.

Even at the level of the studios, a Paramount picture was stylistically different from a Warners picture was different from an MGM picture.

It is true that classical Hollywood (i.e., studio) films were basically "readable" in classical narrative terms. The stylistic differences between them are more subtle than say, the differences between Stevens and Godard. But they aren't subtle to the point of invisibility.

With regard to spurring reflection in viewers and grappling with moral issues, what about film noir, or the "social problem" pictures from Warners? I just watched Jules Dassin's THIEVES' HIGHWAY--not particularly remarkable for its style, but its gritty location work in the tough San Francisco warehouse district of the '40s was gripping, as as political and eye-opening as anything in Godard.

Even a piece of ultra-square invisible Hollywood craftsmanship like Zinnemann's THE NUN'S STORY strikes me as politically engaging and deeply moral.

Style and content--if you're talking political/social/moral impact, they go hand in hand.

August 14, 2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh don't apologize, Steve. I enjoyed reading your points!

I agree with you: there certainly are big differences in style. And you've named some of the greatest of Hollywood filmmakers. The studios made thousands of films in their golden age, and in many ways, the directors you mention are great because they went against the grain of (what in broad and crude generalizations one might think of as key aspects of) the Hollywood style.

Hitch, Welles, Hawks--these are names that are important to us today, decades later, partly because they are unlike the vast majority of forgettable Hollywood classical filmmakers of that period that no one talks about today. So, I would not call them typical Hollywood filmmakers...

It's just that DP's style is so radically visible in comparison to the (crudely generalized) "average and typical" Hollywood classical style...

And I fully agree with you: an interplay of "style" and "content" (two loaded words to cleave in that way but let's do it here anyway) is what creates meaning, not just style alone.

I don't mean to nitpick, Steve. I applaud your points--you make several good and thoughtful ones!

I've never seen the Dassin and have been meaning to rent that Criterion disc.

August 14, 2006 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

You're absolutely right to call me out about my style/content cleavage girish. Of course style is content, and visa versa. But I wonder if there isn't a modern tendency in film theory to make too much of the murkiness of such distinctions -- to insist, a little too insistently, that style is content, style is politics, style is morality. Style can be all of those things. But it's not the only thing.

So what do I mean by content as opposed to style? That's a subject for a very long post. But I've been revisiting the films of Paul Mazursky, who was never popular in film studies circles and seems virtually forgotten today. He's certainly not the most dazzling or consistent stylist in movie history. And yet, there's a substance to his movies -- even the clunky, bedraggled ones -- that captivate me. He's groping toward something, he tries things out, and he definitely has a political/social/moral compass.

All of which isn't to say that a supreme stylist like De Palma isn't also a filmmaker of substance. I think he definitely is.

Side note: What do you make of the resurgent interest in documentaries? There are some very smart documentaries being made right now, and a growing audience for them. Could it be that people are interested in movies that are about something, that take a strong point of view on an immediate, urgent real-world subject and run with it?

August 14, 2006 7:48 PM  
Anonymous StillLoveMarty said...

I'm tired of all the Kaeloids (and Wolcott still is one, though he protests too much) oohing and ahhing over all things DePalma. The sad thing about DePalma is that he has never once had a screenplay equal to his talents. Scarface and Carlito register as better efforts, Casualties is an honorable try undone by a lot of Stanley Kramer corn on David Rabe's part. DePalma has no Taxi Driver, no Nashville, no Barry Lyndon. What he has are the best-directed B movies ever made...until, of course, Tarantino finished the job for him.

August 14, 2006 10:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Steve W.--Sorry, haven't had a chance to respond; things been a touch crazy. I'm leaving for Canada shortly, but will respond when I get back in a couple of days. Thanks!

August 15, 2006 9:32 PM  
Anonymous peter webster said...

I haven't read all the comments above, but I just want to register my admiration of De Palma. Not for all his movies, of course, (Scarface seems utterly ridiculous and mostly repulsive to me) but for several, including Blow Out, which is the finest American political thriller I've ever seen (and seen, and seen yet again), and Casualties of War, which enthralls and horrifies me in equal measure--a truly lascerating work of art, without a smidgen of arty pretentiousness or Hollywood moralizing. Those two movies bookend the decade that saw the end of American cinema as far as I'm concerned. Sure, there have been a few good films made here since 1989 but, as far as I can tell, there's no filmmaker working in this country today who combines the moral vision, technical skill, depth of engagement, and sense of humor needed to turn out movies as significant and entertaining as those two De Palma classics. Judging by his last couple of movies, not even B De P.

August 15, 2006 11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a year behind Brian De Palma in Friends Central School in Philadelphia, mid-1950s, he in 9th grade, I in 8th. I though he was the smartest and most interesting guy in school. He was brilliant then too. He would sometimes flirt with me, in his own way. I wasn't up to the challenge, and always crept away. I've never forgotten his intensity.

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