Thursday, January 21, 2010

Favorites of My Favorites #6 -- Brian De Palma

When Andre Bazin and his gang of French New Wave proteges were first starting out, they were on a mission.  It was a mission to shift the way the world thought about film.  They wanted people to give cinema (a relatively new medium) the same considerations they had long given the other arts (sculpture, literature, music, painting, drama, and architecture). 

To achieve this mission, it was important for them to determine, “what is cinema?”  What makes it unique from all other arts?  What is purely cinematic?   Some of them argued it was the ability to edit that distinguished cinema from the other arts.  Others, like Rohmer, said cinema was the art of “space”.

Though the idea of cinema as a form of art has not prevailed as they once hoped, the term "cinematic" has found itself a place in our vocabulary.  Maybe it means something a little different to each of us, but I would imagine for most that it conjures up images of something that is dazzling, exciting, and visually pleasing.  Something that can’t quite be replicated by any other medium or any other artform. 

Cinematic is the best word I can use to describe the work of Brian De Palma.  His films do more storytelling visually than maybe any we have ever had in the history of the medium.  I find his use of the camera hypnotic and certain of his films absolutely masterful.   He can elongate time in a scene, building moments slowly and patiently in a classical (concentrated) rather than modern (fragmented) way.  In fact, I feel that Quentin Tarantino (a long time fan) probably learned this from De Palma more than anything else (take a look at the way he builds the Gimp scene in Pulp Fiction or the opening scene and the incredible basement tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds). 

In a sense, I would put De Palma and Michael Mann in a similar category.  And probably Martin Scorsese, as well.  They are all very accomplished stylists.  However, I also think they all adhere to the tradition of the “existential hero” rather than that of the “ironic hero”.  Here’s the idea, as articulated from the always wise Paul Schrader:

“And so when the ironic hero supplanted the existential hero, when I first saw "Pulp Fiction," I really thought that was the end of my tradition, which was an existential kind of tradition. The dilemma of the existential hero is, Should I exist? But the dilemma of the ironic hero is, Does it matter? I personally felt that the ironic hero is so thin and unnourishing, and I was wondering how long he could really drive movies commercially before people would just get tired of him and his precious kind of winking at you and jabbing you in the side, his preening detachment.”

Admittedly, I’m a fan of some of the directors that make movies with ironic heroes.  However, one of the real pleasures I derive from Mann, Scorsese, and De Palma, is the way they make me really care about the lives of their characters.  When they die (as they often do), there’s a tragic depth of feeling that the “ironic” school of directors simply don’t provide.

From all accounts, De Palma is still an avid cinephile, and I think that explains some of his enduring modernism.  He is also playful and irreverent, and I think that has allowed him some of his longevity in the business.  I accept that he has his detractors (much of this coming from his desire to blend genres and his combination of somewhat disparate influences – Hitchcock, Film Noir, Argento).   But, ask me to show someone “cinema”, and I’ll probably throw in a De Palma film before almost anything else. 

BRIAN DE PALMA (in preferential order)
1.  Blow Out
2.  Carlito’s Way
3.  Dressed to Kill
4.  Body Double
5.  Femme Fatale
6.  The Untouchables
7.  Phantom of the Paradise
8.  Mission: Impossible
9.  Greetings
10.  Carrie
11.  Casualties of War
12.  Obsession
13.  Scarface
14.  The Fury
15.  Hi, Mom
16.  Snake Eyes watched 1/23/10
17.  Redacted
18.  Sisters
19.  The Bonfire of the Vanities
20.  Mission to Mars
21.  Wise Guys
22.  Raising Cain
23.  The Black Dahlia
24.  The Wedding Party watched 1/30/10
25.  Murder a la Mod watched 1/23/10

Never seen:
Snake Eyes
Home Movies
Murder a la Mod
The Wedding Party
Get to Know Your Rabbit
Show Me a Strong Town and I’ll Show You a Strong Bank (short)
The Responsive Eye (documentary short)
Bridge That Gap (short)
Jennifer (short)
Woton’s Wake (short)
660124: The Story of an IBM Card (short)
Icarus (short)


  1. Hey Jeffrey!

    Well, I have always felt DePalma a very uneven director, and at times downright derivative and guilty of style over substance. His recent work, including FEMME FATALE has failed to impress me. But granted, some of this is taste. I respect your commanding and exhaustive list, and I recognize in European cinematic circles at the very least he is seen as a distingusihed auteur. And he obviously has a huge cult following. I will offer here my own Top 10. I've seen all the films on your main list except for THE BLUE DAHLIA. I've only seen SNAKE EYES of the bottom grouping:

    1 Carrie
    2 Blow-Out
    3 Dressed to Kill
    4 The Untouchables
    5 Obsession
    6 Carlito's Way
    7 Phantom of the Paradise
    8 Scarface
    9 Sisters
    10 Mission to Mars

    Terrific, exquisite essay.

  2. Sam, great to see you on here! I really appreciate the kind words and having your list, as well. It really makes me think and is almost instructive for me to see where tastes differ.

    Of your top ten, would you say you have a real affinity for all of them? Or, are they simply the best of the worst, so to speak?

    I agree that De Palma is about as divisive as they come. I really love him. But I also always try to mention him, as he's probably one of the least liked of all the people I really like.

    FEMME FATALE was one I only caught up with recently and mostly due to Jeremy Richey. He included it on his Best of the Decade list over at Moon in the Gutter. I loved it, actually to my surprise. But, it seems to really have its detractors, about as much as any of De Palma's "key" films.

    Again, Sam, wonderful to have your perspective, and I can't thank you enough for the words!

  3. I actually watched The Black Dahlia last week and kind of liked it. The deficiencies are obvious, but it has a certain "Twin Peaks" quality to it that I think worked in spots.

    I still need to watch films like Femme Fatale and some others. My favorite from De Palma remains Carlito's Way.

  4. Dave, thanks so much for your comments here! That's an interesting statement, and I think I see what you mean by the film having a certain Lynchian quality to it.

    I think my low rating of THE BLACK DAHLIA stems mostly from expectations not met. I think I was waiting for something on the level of CARLITO'S WAY because the material seemed to be such a perfect fit for De Palma. That De Palma energy was missing for me though in the film. I also must admit, I really struggle with Hartnett here.

  5. Jeffrey,
    your statement below describes my very thoughts.

    "Cinematic is the best word I can use to describe the work of Brian De Palma. His films do more storytelling visually than maybe any we have ever had in the history of the medium."

    My favorites in order are:

    Blow Out
    Dressed to Kill
    The Untouchables
    Carlito's Way
    Femme Fatale
    Casualties of War
    Hi Mom!

  6. John, thanks so much for the comments and your list! So glad to see some other De Palma love out there. He just really has his detractors, it seems.

    Thanks again!

  7. I've been a De Palma fanboy ever since I saw Mission to Mars on Pay-Per-View a year after it was first released. I was ten years old- but after I saw his name in the opening credits, I made sure to remember it. And even today, I still have a lot of affection for that film in particular, absurdities in the dialogue and all. It avoids the trap of being a noisy, obnoxious sci-fi picture on the lines of Bay or Emmerich, and instead goes for a sort of "Kubrick Lite".

    I must admit that I'm not all that crazy about De Palma's more popular work: Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible are all very good movies, but I'm just not feeling the love for them. With each of those films (all huge box office successes except for Blow Out), I get the impression that De Palma is, well, selling out to his critics a little. Everybody says that Blow Out is his best, but for me that film doesn't define what I like to refer to as *pure De Palma*.

    Now, Sisters, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Raising Cain and Femme Fatale are all another story. With those ones, De Palma really spreads his exuberant, Hitchcockian wings! Those were the movies that got me addicted to his filmography.

    To me, his four greatest films are Hi, Mom!; The Phantom of the Paradise; Carlito's Way; and Redacted. I get a lot of flaming for my appreciation over that last title, but I truly believe that Redacted is one of the most brilliantly scorching cinematic statements of the last three decades. It's like all of the techniques De Palma has ever experimented with in his career blossomed together in that film, his most recent. And despite the criticisms of the acting, I think Rob Devaney's performance is shattering.

    Murer a la Mod is really a great film, too, although it's obviously the work of a novice De Palma. My thoughts on the film here:

  8. Hey Adam, very interesting to see a piece out there on MURDER A LA MOD. One of the things that struck me when I saw my first early De Palma film (GREETINGS) was that it felt very Godardian to me. You never really hear that influence when people talk about De Palma, probably because he worked through it by the time he was on most people's radar. But anyway, that really jumped out at me. And I think you see it in MURDER A LA MOD, too. If nothing else, just in the playfulness of it.

    I actually can understand a bit your reverence for REDACTED. I just saw it for the first time recently and was quite into it. It's completely unlike anything else he's ever done. I thought the acting was actually pretty great and his verite approach unusually successful.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  9. In honor of me preparing to mix up the viewing for my noir countdown with filling in the gaps I've missed in the films of De Palma and Michael Mann, I thought I'd throw up a tentative Top 6 for De Palma as a starting point and will add to it as I go. Here are my favorites from him:

    1. Carlito's Way
    2. Dressed to Kill
    3. Blow Out
    4. The Black Dahlia (I'm in agreement with the select few critics who like this one)
    5. Scarface
    6. The Untouchables
    7. Snake Eyes (didn't care for, but I'll list it here for exhaustiveness)

    If it cools, Jeff I'll come back and revise this once I've gotten through some more of his films. And to be completely honest, his most recently maligned film The Black Dahlia is what kicked off my own recent interest in his work... and of course reading posts like this and the fine essay on that film over at The Long Voyage Home.

  10. Dave, of course, please come back as much as you'd like. I'm not sure how many of his films I'd classify as noir, but of the ones missing from your list, I'd certainly encourage you to see FEMME FATALE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, BODY DOUBLE, OBSESSION, and perhaps RAISING CAIN. I look forward to continuing to follow your excellent noir countdown and am curious to hear how these other De Palma films sit with you (as well as THIEF and MANHUNTER).

  11. Off the top of my is my De Palma Top Ten:

    1. Blow Out
    2. Dressed to Kill
    3. Carrie
    4. Carlito's Way
    5. Phantom of the Paradise
    6. Body Double
    7. Femme Fatale
    8. Scarface
    9. Sisters
    10. The Fury

  12. Hey, Jeremy, so great to have your list! I know that you know De Palma as well as anyone. Thanks again for turning me onto FEMME FATALE. It remains one of the most memorable watches I've had in recent memory.

  13. As promised, I've come back while still in my midst of my own personal De Palma marathon over the last few weeks. I still have some notable omissions from my viewing, but I thought I'd come back with an updated De Palma list after watching some that I had not seen and also re-watching some favorites. The ordering has changed a bit, and I'm probably the only one you'll come across with this #1 selection:

    1. The Black Dahlia
    2. Carlito's Way
    3. Dressed to Kill
    4. Blow Out
    5. Scarface
    6. Femme Fatale
    7. Casualties of War
    8. The Untouchables
    9. body Double
    10. Sisters
    11. Obsession
    12. Snake Eyes

    As I said, some notable omissions -- I still need to watch Carrie (on Netflix Watch Instantly), Mission Impossible (DVD sitting next to me) and many others, but I will get to them when I can!

    And yes, I can't help but place The Black Dahlia at #1. It has a hold over me similar to how the Dahlia fixates the two lead characters of the film. I think it's brilliant, regardless of the skewering it took from critics and the box office.

  14. Hey Dave great to see you going through some more De Palma. I'll be interested to hear how some of those others hit you. I think that's fascinating about DAHLIA. I've only seen it once (when it came out), but based on your great interest, I will make a point to see it again.

    Thanks so much for the update!