Brian De Palma
- Category : Film - Director
- Type : MEG
- Profile : 3/5 - Martyr / Heretic
- Definition : Split - Small (11,43)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Rulership 3
Brian De Palma (born Brian Russell DePalma on September 11, 1940 in Newark, New Jersey) is a prolific, and controversial American film director.
De Palma is often cited as a leading member of the New Hollywood generation of film directors, a distinct pedigree who either emerged from film schools or are overtly cine-literate. His contemporaries include Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, John Milius, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg.
De Palma's artistry in directing and use of cinematography and suspense in several of his films is often compared to the work of the late Alfred Hitchcock.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, De Palma worked repeatedly with actors Jennifer Salt, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen (his wife from 1979 to 1983), William Finley, Charles Durning, Gerrit Graham, cinematographers Stephen H. Burum and Vilmos Zsigmond (see List of noted film director and cinematographer collaborations), set designer Jack Fisk, and composers Bernard Herrmann and Pino Donaggio. De Palma is credited with fostering the careers of or outright discovering Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, and Margot Kidder.
De Palma has encouraged and fostered the filmmaking careers of directors such as Mark Romanek and Keith Gordon. Terrence Malick credits seeing De Palma's early films on college campus tours as a validation of independent film, and subsequently switched his attention from philosophy to filmmaking.
De Palma, whose background is Italian Roman Catholic, was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey in various Protestant and Quaker schools. The fissure between the Catholic and Protestant ethic is exemplified in De Palma's cinema, where the grand guignol exists alongside the status quo, where the normal is made epic and the extraordinary deflated into the mainstream.
1960s - The American Godard
Enrolled at Columbia as a physics student, De Palma became enraptured with the filmmaking process after viewing Citizen Kane and Vertigo. De Palma subsequently enrolled at the newly coed Sarah Lawrence College as a graduate student in their theater department in the late 1960s, becoming one of the first male students among a female population. Once there, influences as various as drama teacher Wilford Leach, the Maysles brothers, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol and Alfred Hitchcock impressed upon De Palma the many styles and themes that would shape his own cinema in the coming decades. An early association with discovery Robert De Niro resulted in The Wedding Party, codirected with Leach and producer Cynthia Munroe. The film was shot in 1963 but remained unreleased until 1969, when De Palma's star had risen sufficiently within the Greenwich Village filmmaking scene, though De Niro's remained low enough for the credits to display his name as "Robert Denero". The film is noteworthy for its invocation of silent film techniques and an insistence on the jump-cut for effect. Various small films for the NAACP and The Treasury Department followed.
During this decade, De Palma began making a living producing documentary films, notably The Responsive Eye (1966) about the The Responsive Eye op-art exhibit curated by William Seitz for MOMA in 1965. In an interview with Gelmis from 1969, De Palma described the film as "very good and very successful. It’s distributed by Pathe Contemporary and makes lots of money. I shot it in four hours, with synched sound. I had two other guys shooting people’s reactions to the paintings, and the paintings themselves."
Dionysus in '69 (1969) was De Palma's other major documentary from this period. The film records The Performance Group's performance of Euripdes’ “The Bacchae”, starring, amongst others, De Palma regular William Finely. The play is noted for breaking traditional barriers between performers and audience. The film's most striking quality is its extensive use of the split-screen. De Palma recalls that he was “floored” by this performance upon first sight, and in 1973 recounts how he "began to try and figure out a way to capture it on film. I came up with the idea of split-screen, to be able to show the actual audience involvement, to trace the life of the audience and that of the play as they merge in and out of each other."
De Palma's most significant features from this decade are Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1969). Both films star Robert De Niro and espouse a Leftist revolutionary viewpoint common to their era. His other major film from this period is the slasher comedy Murder a la Mod. Each of these films contains experiments in narrative and intertextuality, reflecting De Palma's stated intention to become the "American Godard" while interrogating several of the themes which permeated Hitchcock's work.
"Greetings" is about three New Yorkers dealing with draft. The film is often considered the first to deal explicitly with the draft. The film is noteworthy for its use of various experimental techniques to convey its narrative in ultimately unconventional ways. Footage will be sped up, rapid cutting will distance the audience from the narrative, and it is difficult to discern with whom the audience must ultimately align. "Greetings" ultimately grossed over $1 million at the box office and cemented De Palma's position as a bankable filmmaker.
After the success of his 1968 breakthrough, De Palma and his producing partner (Charles Hirsch) were given the opportunity by Sigma 3 to make an unofficial sequel of sorts, initially entitled "Son of Greetings", and subsequently released as "Hi, Mom!." While "Greetings" accentuated its varied cast, "Hi, Mom" focuses on De Niro's character, Jon Rubin, an essential carry-over from the previous film. To take this film out of its historical context is simply impossible. The late 60s and into 1970, as cinematized by De Palma, has a radical irreverence that borders on the sadistic. De Palma was hyper-conscious of the Vietnam War, in the background, but always connected to the war are the age of assassinations, the rise of SDS, the rise of Black Power, the post-68 hardening of Nixon on the consciousness of the Left, and in conjunction, the advent of the home movie, the rise of the “silent majority,” the early beginnings of truly independent cinema in the form of exploitation/porn that was a huge business in the 60s and 70s in NY as well as the New American Cinema being championed and cultivated by Jonas Mekas. "Hi, Mom!" is inextricably linked to the world around it. The film is ultimately significant insofar as it displays the first enunciation of De Palma’s style in all its major traits – voyeurism, guilt, and a hyper-consciousness of the medium are all on full display, not just as hallmarks, but built into this formal, material apparatus itself.
These traits come to the fore in "Hi, Mom!"'s "Be Black, Baby" sequence. This sequence parodies cinéma vérité, the dominant documentary tradition of the 1960s, while simultaneously providing the audience with a visceral and disturbingly emotional experience. De Palma describes the sequence as a constant invocation of Brechtian distanciation: “First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it. In 'Hi Mom!" for instance, there is a sequence where you are obviously watching a ridiculous documentary and you are told that and you are aware of it, but it still sucks you in. There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved with it.”
"Be Black, Baby" was filmed in black and white stock on 16mm, in low-light conditions that stress the crudity of the direct cinema aesthetic. It is precisely from this crudity that the film itself gains a credibility of “realism.” In an interview with Michael Bliss, De Palma notes “ was rehearsed for almost three weeks… In fact, it’s all scripted. But once the thing starts, they just go with the way it’s going. I specifically got a very good documentary camera filmmaker (Robert Elfstrom) to just shoot it like a documentary to follow the action. A good documentary filmmaker will watch how action unfolds and immediately go to how it’s playing.”
De Palma notes, “I wanted to show in Hi Mom how you can really involve an audience. You take an absurd premise – “Be Black, Baby” – and totally involve them and really frighten them at the same time. It’s very Brechtian. You suck ‘em in and annihilate ‘em. Then you say, “It’s just a movie, right? It’s not real.” It’s just like television. You’re sucked in all the time, and you’re being lied to in a very documentary-like setting. The “Be Black, Baby” section of HI Mom is probably the most important piece of film I’ve ever done.” Indeed, the film, when taken in the context, is a complete indictment of the spectator’s relationship with the projected event. From our seats in the movie, we achieve a safe distance that enables us to facilitate the seduction of Judy Bishop and feel “okay” with it. However, De Palma does not let his audience off the hook. As he slowly, meticulously dissolves identification with Jon, in favor of a mass identification with the “silent majority,” and in turn conspicuously blurs the distinctions between film and reality, he literally stages a cinematic assault on the senses of those in the theater, punishing them for those voyeuristic impulses.
The Transition to Hollywood
In 1976, after several small, studio and independent released films that included stand-out's Sisters and Obsession, a small film based on a novel called Carrie was released directed by Brian De Palma. The psychic thriller Carrie is seen by some as De Palma's bid for a blockbuster. In fact, the project was small, underfunded by United Artists, and well under the cultural radar during the early months of production, as Stephen King's source novel had yet to climb the bestseller list. De Palma gravitated toward the project and changed crucial plot elements based upon his own predilections, not the saleability of the novel. The cast was young and relatively new, though stars Sissy Spacek and John Travolta had gained considerable attention for previous work in, respectively, film and episodic sitcoms. Carrie became a hit, the first genuine box-office success for De Palma. Preproduction for the film had coincided with the casting process for George Lucas's Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and many of the actors cast in De Palma's film had been earmarked as contenders for Lucas's, and vice-versa. The "shock ending" finale is effective even while it upholds horror-film convention, its suspense sequences are buttressed by teen comedy tropes, and its use of split-screen, split-diopter and slow motion shots tell the story visually rather than through dialogue.
The financial and critical success of Carrie allowed De Palma to pursue more personal material. The Demolished Man was a novel that had fascinated De Palma since the late 1950s and appealed to his background in mathematics and avant-garde storytelling. Its unconventional unfolding of plot (exemplified in its mathematical layout of dialogue) and its stress on perception have analogs in De Palma's filmmaking. He sought to adapt it on numerous occasions, though the project would carry a substantial price tag, and has yet to appear onscreen (Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report bears striking similarities to De Palma's visual style and some of the themes of The Demolished Man). The result of his experience with adapting The Demolished Man was The Fury, a sci-fi psychic thriller that starred Kirk Douglas, Carrie Snodgress, John Cassavetes and Amy Irving. The film was admired by Jean-Luc Godard, who featured a clip in his mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma and Pauline Kael, who championed both The Fury and De Palma. The film boasted a larger budget than Carrie, though the consensus view at the time was that De Palma was repeating himself, with diminishing returns. As a film it retains De Palma's considerable visual flair, but points more toward his work in mainstream entertainments such as The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible, the thematic complex thrillers for which he is better known. For many film-goers, De Palma's gangster films, most notably Scarface and Carlito's Way, pushed the envelope of violence and depravity, and yet greatly vary from each other in both style and content and also illustrate De Palma's evolution as a film-maker. In essence, Scarface's excesses contrast with the more emotional tragedy of Carlito's Way. Both films feature Al Pacino in what has become a fruitful working relationship.
Themes and critical opinion
His works explore themes of suspense and obsession, along with gender identity. He is famous for his extensive use of split screen, split-diopter and process shots, and long tracking shots. His films also frequently feature characters changing their hair colour from blonde to brunette and vice versa.
Critics of De Palma such as Andrea Dworkin accuse him of being misogynistic and of emphasizing technical aspects of storytelling at the expense of human stories. These views, along with the charge of 'ripping off' various filmmakers, is slowly fading from mainstream critical analysis of De Palma's work, as the complexities of his montage and mise en scène come into focus. Emerging views (as expressed on scholarly sites like Senses of Cinema) of De Palma compare him less and less with modernist filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and more with transgressionists such as Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard and to traditions ranging from Surrealism, Postmodernism to the theater of the Absurd.
Many Alfred Hitchcock homages, using similar locations and camera techniques, and using a "long take" which is usually complimented by a series of elaborate tracking shots or dolly movements. The latter is an homage to Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949).
Has commissioned Hitchcockian compositions for his films, and worked with composer Bernard Herrmann, who worked with Alfred Hitchcock until a falling out during the production of Torn Curtain (1966).
Doppelgängers (or evil twins), and "femmes fatales" appear frequently in De Palma's films.
Often shoots "tense" moments without any widening lens or zoom. When coupled with his trademark extended shot, it creates a feeling the viewer is in the scene.