Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pure cinema

I have a book called American Film Now, written by James Monaco and published in 1979, which includes a chapter on seven “whiz kids” – “directors who’ve become star celebrities”: Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg and Schrader. Remarkably, all seven are still making films thirty-five years on, and they’ve all maintained their high profiles (in contrast, one of Monaco’s choices for the five directors then “at the ‘hot center’ of American film, Michael Ritchie, is barely remembered now, and another, Paul Mazursky, isn’t generally esteemed at that level). Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas could hardly have been more successful; Bogdanovich and Friedkin have made it to elder statesman status through severe ups and downs; Schrader, inherently more of an outsider, got more publicity than he has in years (for better and for worse) with his recent movie The Canyons.

Brian De Palma

Which leaves the strange case of Brian De Palma. He’s widely admired for his immense skill, and several of his films – Scarface, Carrie, The Untouchables – are widely viewed as modern classics. But there’s also a widespread sense that he somehow fell short, having spent too much time trying to emulate Alfred Hitchcock, or repeating himself, or wasting his efforts on second-rate material, or all three at once. Even thirty-five years ago, commenting on the successive projects of Carrie and The Fury, Monaco commented that “it’s hard to tell what De Palma had in mind taking on a project so similar to the one he had just completed” – to this day, his decisions often evoke similar bemusement. Many of his pictures seem like “assignments” that might have been taken on by someone else (something that seldom applies to the works of most of the others I mentioned): his most overtly ambitious or “relevant” films, like The Bonfire of the Vanities, are often among his weakest, as if confirming his limitations.

This certainly held for his most recent film, Redacted, which dealt with the Iraq war, via the conceit that everything in the movie is being intermediated –through surveillance cameras, or webcams, or so forth. “Isn’t it ironic,” said De Palma at the time, “that in order to tell the truth about Iraq, you have to create the truth?” But this “truth” as De Palma presented it, although apparently based on real events, focused on a sensational incident hardly representative of the individual contribution of most soldiers (and not at all of the broader issues, except in the most crassly symbolic sense). Some effective moments aside, it was mostly stilted and juvenile and just not very useful, suggesting De Palma’s long immersion in cinema had muffled, if not destroyed his real-world antennae.


It’s certainly possible to detect recurring thematic interests in his work. Writing on the Senses of Cinema website, Keith Uhlich suggests for instance that “De Palma forces us to remember, to confront our dark pasts and secrets in an effort at recognizing our perpetual humanity.” I must admit though I’d find it hard to reach that same judgment – at the very least, De Palma seems to express the darkness and the secrets more fully than the humanity.

The title of Monaco’s old book, American Film Now, resonates oddly against De Palma’s recent work, and it’s interesting to apply it word by word to his new film Passion. Firstly, the director himself is almost the only American element in there - it’s a German-French co-production, set notionally in Germany but more generally in some unspecifiable Euro-zone, starring the Swedish Noomi Rapace and the Canadian Rachel McAdams. As for “Now” – Passion takes place in the present day, in a corporate world influenced by YouTube and viral marketing, but De Palma (as if acknowledging the failure of Redacted) shows little interest in these elements, approaching events as a largely disembodied series of formally enacted encounters and rituals.

Which leaves “Film.” It’s ironic that Passion will largely be seen on-demand (although it’s also playing, as I write, on one local screen too, at the Carlton) because it might be taken as the knowing last gasp of an immersive brand of “pure” cinema – something you consciously experience as an aesthetic creation, an appropriation of structures and devices and techniques associated with the medium’s classical heyday (with Hitchcock, once again, in particular).

In the most striking sequence, De Palma uses a split screen: on the left, Rapace’s character watches a ballet duet; on the right, McAdams’ character takes a shower and prepares for a sexual encounter. It’s a masterful play of movement, stillness, sensuality, desire, with the eerie stares of the dancers implicitly accusing us of complicity in the narrative trap that’s being laid. But one could as easily imagine coming across this sequence as a stand-alone short creation, projected in a dark room in the basement of a modern art gallery. It’s an expression both of hope and despair, embodying De Palma’s undiminished belief in the thrill and virtue of such cinematic expression, and his sense of its shrinking place in the world. A similar ambiguity underlies the film’s title – as numerous writers have pointed out, Passion is an odd title for such a tightly controlled work.

Waking Dream

McAdams plays Christine, an executive at the German branch of a global advertising agency, who plans to leap up to the New York office by taking credit for a brilliant idea created by Isabelle (Rapace). The plan stalls when Isabelle asserts herself, and the relationship between the two women becomes increasingly toxic; Christine keeps developing ways to belittle Isabelle, who starts popping pills and becoming unstable. The film largely enacts Uhlich’s comment that in De Palma’s work: “Helplessness is a constant…a De Palma protagonist rarely has control over the events in which they find themselves embroiled.” It’s best taken, I think, as a sort of waking dream in which the true weight and earthly consequence of actions and events becomes hard to determine; the normal  cinematic language of created realism yields to increasing abstraction, reinforced by the narrative’s escalating confusion about inner states and outer realities. On that basis, I liked the film much more than not, but I’m not sure I know anyone to whom I could confidently recommend it.

Because, sadly, it’s not clear who cares anymore – and it feels like De Palma might know that too. In the film’s very last moment, one of the characters slumps on the bed, her fate sealed, at the end of another bravura sequence that introduces a new form of disorientation even as it wraps up certain elements: the screen cuts to black and the words “The End” carry unusual finality. Even if this doesn’t turn out to be De Palma’s last film (and as he’s now 73, with a series of financial and critical flops behind him, it certainly might be), it seems like an assertion that there’s nowhere else for him to go.

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