Brian DePalma is one of those filmmakers whose profile has lost luster over the years along with his commercial studio cred. It shouldn’t. Simon Abrams writes about the thrillmeister on a the eve of a BAM retrospective:
This weekend, Brooklynites can pump themselves up for the Criterion Collection’s forthcoming release of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out by checking out the BAMcinemathek retrospective aptly titled “De Palma’s Suspense.” Programmed by Noah Baumbach, this year’s BAM Cinema Club Chair, the thirteen day-long series showcase is a perfect way to see De Palma’s films. It’s also a great opportunity to check out Dressed to Kill and Obsession, two of De Palma’s best films that are both unfortunately no longer available on DVD.
Blow Out serves as a template for his other films. John Travolta plays Jack Terry, a soundman who accidentally records a murder while scouting sounds late at night in a public park. Loosely inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, Blow Out showcases De Palma’s layered filmmaking method. Jack recreates the murder by clipping sequential photographs of the murder published in a magazine and filming them as if they were individual frames of a film. After that, he solders his own sound recording onto that newly created filmstrip in order to better recreate events.
De Palma’s most memorable sequences are not seamless tracking shots but rather split screens and tricks of the eye involving characters superimposed on top of an exterior background. The filmmaker likes to draw attention to how his films are blatantly artificial representations of reality.
An ardent Hitchcock-phile, De Palma pays homage to Vertigo in Obsession, the story of a wealthy businessman who obsessively tries to reconstruct his love affair with his wife, much as Jimmy Stewart did with Kim Novak.
Then again, De Palma’s thrillers, while darkly detailing the foibles of victims and voyeurs, are also full of his macabre humor. Dressed to Kill is a difficult film to parse, because its characters mislead the viewer with expectations. The opening shower scene, in which a blonde is raped after masturbating, is unmistakably over the top. But this dreamscape sets the tone for the film’s often-inscrutable politics of looking and being looked at. DePalma’s women are helpless sex objects who are actively complicit in their own victimization. That slippery slope is De Palma’s forte and the main reason why his cinema is criticized as being latently, if not actively, misogynistic.
Then again, De Palma’s perverse sense of humor, no matter how egregious, intentionally opens the floodgates for open-ended interpretations. In Phantom of the Paradise, a comedic rock opera filmed in part just outside of BAM on St. Felix Street and Ashland Place, the eponymous composer is buried alive inside his own room. In the very next scene, he re-enacts the shower scene from Psycho by harassing a singer while he sings in the shower. No explanation is provided as to how the Phantom got out of his death chamber—he’s just there. The underlying logic behind that joke is that the viewer can imagine whatever method for his escape they want. The gaps of logic in De Palma’s films are, after all, what make his thrillers some of America’s most invigorating violent movies.