De Palma 101: Introduction
GENA: When you’re raised by parents who essentially leave you on your own to figure out what sort of books, movies, and TV shows are appropriate, it creates a strange sort of voyeuristic guilt--I shouldn’t be doing this, but nobody’s stopping me, so what the heck. I read and watched a lot of inappropriate stuff when I was a kid. “Well, how much is a lot, Gena?” you might be asking. A lot. Looking back as a middle-aged person having raised a child myself (and with rather more strict standards on what she could or couldn’t watch when she was little), part of me thinks that it was kind of cool that I grew up like the kind of kid Jodie Foster once played, world-weary and having seen it all (even if it was just on a television screen) by the age of 12. On the other hand, I also think that I probably should have been put in a home run by nuns for my own good.
Three of the strange surrogate fathers in my childhood were Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma. King and Spielberg, of course, show up in most 80s kids’ pop culture DNA, but have you ever met someone who watched Dressed to Kill at age 9? Well, now you have. Did I understand what was happening in it at the time? Not exactly, and I’m sure that the reveal at the end that the female killer and psychiatrist Michael Caine were one and the same was particularly puzzling. I didn’t know anything about Hitchcock pastiche or repressed sexuality at the time. It just seemed kind of cool and deeply creepy, and, most importantly, I wasn’t supposed to be seeing this.
You know what else I wasn’t supposed to be seeing? Body Double. A film as slick and shiny as a mirrored tray covered in coke dust, it features a prolonged scene in which a man murders a woman with a drill held at crotch level. With much of the action taking place in or around a weird, extremely new wave 80s spaceship house, it’s deeply silly, often very sleazy, and absolutely fascinating to watch. I probably watched it at least three times as a young teenager because, again, no one was there to ask “Ehhhh shouldn’t you maybe be watching The Goonies or Splash instead?” I mean, I was, but I was watching this other stuff too, and the cognitive dissonance that caused was probably something worth seeing a therapist about. I also shouldn’t have been watching Blow Out, The Fury, or Carrie either, but I did. I can’t emphasize enough how tantalizing the idea of no one is stopping me is to a child. De Palma’s movies were weird, sometimes scary, and a;ways very, very adult. They were irresistible.
CHRIS: Here’s the thing about De Palma, he’s a lot, and while he has a distinct look, and common themes and ideas that keep popping up in his work, he also managed to fit that look and those themes in a wide variety of qualities. He’s one of those guys who could never get it together enough to string more than a couple of hits together, and so kept having to return to commercial filmmaking in order to get his box office cred back up enough to make whatever crazy passion project he was really interested and that would inevitably crash and burn at the box office and send him back to studioland and do penance to start it all over again.
Not that that even worked half the time. The end result is one of the most fascinating, diverse and frustrating oeuvres of all the New Hollywood directors. He was too talented and too slick to just lose it or fall apart like Friedkin, Bogdanovich or Rafelson (or, let’s face it, Coppola), but he was too weird and self-destructive to survive and thrive in the ever changing movie landscape like Spielberg or Scorsese. De Palma is a man whose obsessions led to some all-time great movies, and some really shitty ones.
I also think how you feel about him is heavily influenced by where you start with him. If your foundational De Palma is the coked out Scarface, you’re going to have a different reaction to, say Femme Fatale than if you start with Body Double or Carrie. Similarly, if you start with the super personal Blow Out, you’ll look at Mission Impossible differently than if you’d began with The Untouchables. And if you start with Mission to Mars or Black Dahlia you probably couldn’t be talked into even trying anything else and I’m not sure I’d blame you. Like I said, he’s a lot.
I came to De Palma relatively late in my movie life, but I knew who he was for a long time before that because Casualties of War sent Marty McFly to Vietnam. My dad, though, told me that ten was too young for a Vietnam movie and that even if it wasn’t, Brian De Palma was evil and that Casualties was probably evil too. My dad wasn’t some overprotective religious weirdo or anything, buddy just fucking hated Brian De Palma. I was ten, if my dad said De Palma was evil I had no reason to doubt him. But it made an impression.
I remembered, and when the next De Palma movie was coming out, and it was based on the book my mom had just read and starred Tom Hanks (Splash! Big!) and Bruce Willis (fucking Die Hard man!), I paid attention to that too. And as we all know, Bonfire of the Vanities went down hard. It was supposed to be a sure thing and it turned out to be anything but. Bonfire was such a catastrophe that even a (admittedly more plugged in than most but still) twelve-year-old knew about it. How could that happen? I didn’t know (though I learned when I read the fantastic book about the production The Devil’s Candy), but I knew De Palma had something to do with it, because that’s what everything I read said. So now I knew three things about De Palma, one: he was evil, two: he was important enough to trust with a big movie, three: he was capable of fucking up a big movie. Even without seeing a frame of his work, that was interesting.
So I read all of Roger Ebert’s reviews (thanks, early internet!), and whatever else I could find about De Palma, and while I actually watched the movies made by his contemporaries and descendants, I just absorbed other people’s feelings about his. It mattered that a lot of his best known work flirted with horror, a genre that I wasn’t very interested in, and that, again, his shit was just all over the map. It’s just easier to follow a consistent filmmaker than an inconsistent one, and if the inconsistent one’s best movies involved serial killers and blood drenched prom queens and people being murdered with chainsaws and drills, that just wasn’t for me yet. But again, still interesting.
I didn’t see one of his movies until Carlito’s Way, which I thought was pretty good. I saw it on video and in fucking pan and scan, so I only really saw half of it, but still, solid movie, a little slow in places but it wasn’t crazy or incomprehensible and didn’t fill me with the urge to kill or whatever an evil movie is supposed to do. Then, two years later, I saw Mission Impossible in the theater, and when it was all over, I saw everything he did after that and started working my way through his back catalog.
Still, it’s hard to really shake the things your parents tell you, especially if you respect and trust them, and I always had this little fear in the back of my mind that maybe his early shit was somehow evil and that if I watched it I would somehow be corrupted or upset or, I dunno, driven crazy or something. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but also, somehow I think De Palma would like it and think it was funny, so I’ve let it linger, and whenever I watch something old of his that I’ve never seen before I think maybe this is the one that will push me over the edge.