This experimental film column began its life at The Rumpus, and we are very excited to see it continue here. The column freezes the frames of a film at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks, using these points as the foundations for an essay.
Chicago. High school students Gillian (Amy Irving) and her friend La Rue (Melody Scott Thomas, whose first role was as the “young” Marnie in Hitchcock’s Marnie in 1964) (which I wrote about here) walk down the lakefront, quizzing each other in preparation for their upcoming finals. This frame comes near the beginning of a long take (one of many, although not the longest), lasting approximately 1:20. The shot is completely gratuitous and completely beautiful, the quality of soft light serving as a subtle reminder that the people who crowd the frame exist separated from us by only a thin membrane, the membrane of the film. (On why he chose the film’s cinematographer, Richard Kline, De Palma has said “I liked the way he had lit some of his films.” Three years later, in 1981, Kline would serve as DP on Body Heat, imbuing it with the same sort of radically disarming softness.)
The hundreds of extras who pass through the frame during that one minute and twenty second long shot—as well as the ten or so extras in this frame—are part of the filmic world of The Fury, too. There is a sort of choreographed anarchy to the frame, a sly knowledge that what appears to he happening naturally and spontaneously (random people crossing in and out of the screen) is a carefully staged part of the film. In this way, The Fury—like the best of De Palma’s other films such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double—is the product of both a carefully controlled aesthetic and an openness to chance and randomness. We watch this extended crowd scene along the lake with a kind of double vision, with the knowledge that the people crowding the frame are following instructions and only pretending to act naturally, while simultaneously suspending that knowledge and permitting ourselves to forget that they are all just extras. In other words, the sequence is a metaphor for cinema itself.
Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglass) and his girlfriend Hester (Carrie Snodgrass) are on the run from the ruthless Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), who has kidnapped Sandza’s son for his telekinetic powers, which Childress hopes to harness into psychic weaponry, perhaps for the government. Sandza and Hester sleep in Hester’s van overnight on the roof of a building in Chicago. This shot comes near the end of a zoom-in after a time-lapse shot that lasts several seconds showing the passing of the night. “It’s the kind of shot you’ve seen done many different ways in many different films,” De Palma has said, “but what made this so effective was the subtlety of this pathetic little truck with the characters inside right in the middle of this huge city.”
Around the same time The Fury was released—in the spring of 1978—President Jimmy Carter held a news conference. The very first question he was asked was this:
Mr. President, whatever the reaction to your economic speech here today, it seems clear that this administration faces a continuing image problem. You, sir, came into office with an image of freshness, with promises of efficiency and reform, and above all, with promises to run an open administration, close to the public. But after 15 months, the polls seem to indicate declining public hope in your administration. . . . Whether these charges are fair or unfair, sir, are you concerned by this dramatic shift in image, and if so, how do you hope to redress the situation?
There is something eerie about the gray flatness of the shot at 40 minutes: the asphalt blotched from nighttime rain, the dark car and van windows like portals into the sort of evil dreamed about in Robert Bolaño’s novel 2666, the uncanny, flat geometry of the screen, segmented into frames within frames. All this adds up to something more than what’s in the frame, as if the whole terrible sense of economic determinism of the 1970s (declining public hope) were somehow encoded in that blank space. There is something pathetic and wanting in cars left overnight on a parking garage roof, the visual equivalent of the sad-looking sweater Jimmy Carter wore during his 1977 “Report to the Nation on Energy” speech.
Gillian is in her bed at the Paragon Institute, her mind, like an antenna, tuning into the psychological tribulations Peter’s son Robin has suffered in his room down the hall, where she will soon venture. The shot could be a deformed, dream-logic doppelgänger of a similar shot from Halloween (which opened five months prior to The Fury) showing the babysitter Annie’s murdered body, as if Annie were still alive. Although cast as a teenager in The Fury, Amy Irving was 24-years-old during the film’s shooting, and in moments like this you can see it, the true beauty of her age. Part of the film’s weird spirit perhaps derives from watching Irving as Gillian transform from the passive woman-who-is-looked-upon into an active, righteous destroyer of men, as if the whole corrupt conspiratorial system (the Watergate scandal was still a fresh national scar in 1978) could be brought down with a determined grip of the hand. It is fitting that a director who, at the height of his career was so often accused of degrading women in his films (there is even a book entitled Misogyny in the Movies: The De Palma Question) also made films where women lay bloody waste to the representatives and symbols of patriarchal power.
The Fury is a key marker in De Palma’s gradual movement away from avant-garde films into the more coherent cinema of the 1980s and 90s, films whose visual logic conformed more closely with classic-era cinema, such as Wise Guys, The Untouchables, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. In a way, De Palma’s story is similar to other “movie brats” whose early work (Lucas’s THX 1138, or Scorsese’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! or The Big Shave) gave way to a style that aligned itself with more mainstream fare, even as their films transformed the mainstream. Taken in this light, The Fury, like its protagonist Gillian, seems aware of its presence in time and of the way that the moving images of the past exist—radically and simultaneously—right alongside those of the present. Gillian’s face in this frame bears the expression of someone who is seeing the past unfold before her eyes. In other words, the expression of someone watching a movie.