Brian De Palma on the set of The Untouchables (1987) -- Paramount Pictures
How does one describe Brian De Palma? Many have accused him of being a misogynist for his films’ violent behavior towards women in thrillers such as Blow Out or Dressed to Kill. Others have commented that De Palma is just a knock-off of Hollywood legend Alfred Hitchcock, as De Palma uses similar formal techniques and even story ideas from classics like Rear Window or Psycho. Though many of De Palma’s movies have become significant within pop culture, most have nevertheless generated controversy for their recurrent use of graphic violence, themes of obsession, and voyeurism. Even if these criticisms of De Palma were entirely true, there’s no denying that his talent as a director or his widespread influence on other filmmakers. Indeed, Brian De Palma has proven again and again over his decades-long career to be one of cinema’s finest provocateurs, fascinated with how people can manipulate images and how those images can, in turn, affect others.
From the beginning of his filmography, De Palma has shown a fierce fascination with cinema and the art of creating images. His first feature in 1968, Murder a la Mod, features a young amateur filmmaker who shoots a cheap pornographic movie to make quick money. De Palma’s formal style itself shows the director’s love for the image; most of his films feature carefully choreographed long shots, split-screens of two separate places, and split-diopter shots that close in on an object or person in the foreground while also maintaining focus on something else in the background. Even De Palma’s recently released thriller Domino, despite a severely cut-down narrative, contains a shocking split-screen sequence that examines how recorded images of violence can easily spread online and thus turn into propaganda
De Palma’s earliest films were low-budget features shot in or around New York City. Three of these starred a young Robert De Niro, who was also beginning to make a name for himself in the film industry. The last and most famous of these early collaborations, Hi, Mom! (1970), was a dark comedy that introduced the themes of voyeurism and images that would become staples of De Palma’s later filmography. De Niro stars as Jon Rubin, a young man returning from Vietnam who has an idea to put a camera outside his window and film people in apartments across the street. Rubin at first gets financial help from an adult film producer and shoots footage of a middle-class family, a rich young playboy, and a college student involved with a black radical group. Rubin even decides to “create” films himself; he seduces a young woman in one of the apartments he spies on and has sex with her in her apartment after setting his camera to start recording after a certain time. Through Rubin, we see not only De Palma’s fascination with vouyerism (there are long sequences of each apartment and its inhabitants, some shots sped up for humor) but also with cinema itself. The girl Rubin dates and seduces on-camera is unaware she’s an actress in a film, showing how much deception inherently goes into making cinema.
The most famous scene of Hi, Mom! occurs after Rubin is fired. Desperately looking for easy money, he gets hired by the black radical group to play a part in a experimental theatrical performance, Be Black, Baby. Shot entirely on 16mm film, the sequence involves several wealthy white audience members going to the production set in an empty apartment building. The black actors running the show make the white people eat soul food and paint their faces black while they don whiteface. From there, the white audience members are terrorized and chased from room to room by the actors as an attempt for the white patrons to understand the “black experience.” Rubin plays a policeman who comes in at the end of the performance to further scare the audience before chasing them out of the building. At the end, the stunned white audience praises the show; the black actors are disappointed and one sourly remarks, “I don’t think they learned a thing.” Though the extended scene is also a hilarious satire of the New York underground theater movement, it also serves as another example of cinema as manipulation. Because of the intense performances by the black actors and Rubin, the white patrons are deceived into thinking they are in serious danger and forget that they are part of a performance until they are let free and given time to calm down.
After a string of successes in the 1970s including Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie, De Palma made several studio films in the 1980s, some highly commercial (Scarface, The Untouchables) and some were more personal psychological thrillers. Body Double, made immediately after Scarface was negatively received by critics and gained controversy for its graphic violence, was released as a bitter response to Hollywood animosity and was a twisted homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo. After he catches his girlfriend cheating on him, unemployed actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) decides to house-sit for Sam (Gregg Henry) for several days. At the house before leaving, Sam shows Scully a telescope where he watches a neighbor (Deborah Shelton) do a seductive dance alone every night. Scully quickly becomes fascinated with the neighbor and begins stalking her around Los Angeles during the day. One night, Scully watches the neighbor become brutally murdered by a mysterious, disfigured man; he later discovers that the woman he saw each night dancing was a porn actress, Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), hired by Sam to make sure Scully would watch every night. Sam — wearing a mask to look like the disfigured man — killed the real neighbor, his wife Gloria, and used Scully as the perfect alibi.
Body Double is one of De Palma’s most unnerving works, examining our relationship to cinema and how audiences expectations can subjectively affect the images they see. Sam chooses Scully to become an unknowing witness because he knows Scully has recently lost his girlfriend and is lonely. Indeed, Scully projects his sexual desires on to the dancing woman, even following Gloria around as she shops in a mall or walks to the beach. Scully’s voyeuristic act of watching through a telescope implicates us the viewers as well, as we too become an audience to Holly’s erotic dance. After Gloria’s murder, a distraught Scully watches a porn channel and sees Holly doing the same dance she did for him in the window. From here on, Scully transforms from a passive audience member into an active participant; he auditions for a music video with Holly and introduces himself to her as a porn producer as a way to get the truth out of her. The music video itself — set to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single “Relax” — is a film within a film — as Scully plays a man wandering through a strip club and eventually seduced by Holly. Both within and without Body Double, we clearly see how cinema and its imagery can manipulate us, yet there is still a part of us that allows us to get tricked and deceived every time.
One of De Palma’s last Hollywood-funded movies, Snake Eyes was given negative reviews from critics and audiences alike, but it remains an essential De Palma film. Detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) goes to an Atlantic City boxing match to help guard the Secretary of Defense alongside an old friend Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), now a U.S. Navy Commander. When the Secretary gets fatally shot, the arena closes down and Santoro searches for suspects who might have been involved in a larger conspiracy. Most of the film is shown throughRashomon-style flashbacks; Santoro hears stories from different people about where they were and what they were doing when the shooting took place. Yet, Santoro soon realizes some of the statements he’s been given contradicts others — the recollections of witness Julia (Carla Gugino) reveal that Dunne’s story was fabricated and that he was part of the plan to kill the Secretary.
Much of Snake Eyes revolves around the objectivity of the surveillance camera as opposed to the memories of individuals. The film opens on newsreel footage of a storm outside the match and moves from one television to another. Santoro is first seen standing next to a pay-per-view reporter shown on a television and then moves off of the television screen and on to our own. Santoro only believes Julia’s story when he sees footage of Dunne meeting with the shooter minutes before the Secretary’s death. De Palma seems to recognize that a camera recording by itself is unbiased, but those images can easily be changed or constructed to show or hide the truth. When Dunne erases the surveillance video, the camera moves to a different news screen where corrupt casino owner Gilbert Powell (John Heard) lies to reporters about how the Secretary of Defense was killed. The Secretary of Defense was killed because Julia, a military manufacturer analyst, told him that the results of a new missile guard system supported by Dunne and Powell were faked so he would approve its use. Here, one can see a significant change in De Palma’s examination of imagery. In Hi, Mom!, Rubin comically seduces a woman to create an adult film; Sam creates the image of Holly’s dance to get away with murder in Body Double. On the other hand, images are erased or manipulated by military officials and corporation executives for large profits in Snake Eyes. The institutional corruption discovered by Santoro is so vast and widespread that De Palma’s original ending to the film (the casino washing away entirely in the midst of the hurricane) makes much more sense.
De Palma’s filmography of the last 20 years has been mostly independently financed and hasn’t received the same distribution or success as his previous work. Domino is the best example; De Palma had trouble with producers during filming, and a 140-minute rough cut of the film got shortened to the 89-minute version being released this week. Yet, despite all these troubles, there are still sequences within Domino that demonstrate De Palma’s artistry just as much in Body Double or Snake Eyes. No other filmmaker has so thoroughly examined our relationship with cinema and how its artificiality can deceive us. Even in his late 70s, De Palma is still thinking about how images can be manipulated, and in turn, manipulate an idea more relevant than ever in a world filled with billions of cellphones and a limitless global network.