Culture

Taking the Politics Out of Movies

De Palma with John Travolta on the set of 1981’s Blowout (A24)
The new documentary on Brian De Palma goes from hero worship to sycophancy.

Brian De Palma’s 1978 thriller The Fury is his greatest film. It has exemplary visual rhythm, emotional excitation tied to the concept of loyalty, and complex references to film history — plus, it has proven to be politically prescient. The Fury takes on the post-counterculture generation’s innocence (or naïveté) in its story of two psychically gifted teenagers, Gillian and Robin (Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens), who become pawns in government subterfuge and are pursued by a parental rogue agent (Kirk Douglas) and a sinister agency chief (John Cassavetes). The Fury’s unforgettable climax — the most cathartic ending in movie history — turned the post-Vietnam generations’ long-stifled, potentially dangerous energy into metaphor.

De Palma himself might be unaware of The Fury’s prescience; working from his Sixties-based affinity for youthful sexuality and suspicion of government, he was mostly conscious of creating a quasi-political satire, and so in the new interview film De Palma (released by the independent distributor A24), the now 75-year-old director underrates The Fury among other movies in his filmography. He fails to appreciate its astonishing accomplishment as a work of psychedelic emotional depth. (He prefers the conventional anti–Vietnam War cynicism in his 1989 Casualties of War.)

De Palma is not a shallow artist, but this documentary offers a shallow retrospective on his art, his celebrity, and his “controversy.” Staged as an inquest, De Palma pins the director in his Fifth Avenue apartment, answering questions from unseen interlocutors about the stages of his career: first as an avant-garde indie, then achieving industry infamy as a misogynistic scaremeister. Despite this film’s mugshot premise, it imitates the famous meeting-of-minds in François Truffaut’s classic 1966 interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which a great young filmmaker inquired into the techniques of an Old Master. But the anonymity of these questions leaves De Palma stranded. Instead of speaking artist-to-artist, he’s forced to make a case for himself against unidentified questioners. Too much time is wasted on De Palma’s defending his misunderstood movies and answering philistine charges about fame, sexism, and brutality.

An artist’s work is its own defense. Otherwise, that’s what critics are for. But De Palma attests to the lack of critical thinking in contemporary culture. Tired, old complaints about De Palma’s kinetic, teasingly erotic, and often violent style become the basis of forcing the guy to say things like “I did grow up in an operating room; I saw a lot of blood.” Yes, De Palma was the son of a philandering New Jersey orthopedic surgeon (as depicted in his 1978 family comedy Home Movies), but, more importantly, he was the artistic son of several key filmmakers who were also fearless about bravura provocation.

This disappointing documentary never explores the inspiration De Palma drew from Orson Welles (flamboyant, self-conscious technique and Shakespearean morality); Fritz Lang (paranoid examination of social decadence); and Jean-Luc Godard (political wit folded into aesthetic examination). The confluence of their ideas is ignored in the documentary’s emphasis on De Palma’s unabashed parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense devices.

Aesthetics and political morality are rarely discussed in relation to De Palma’s movies (his hits Carrie, The Fury, and The Untouchables have notable resemblances to the work of Luis Buñuel, John Boorman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Sergei Eisenstein as much as to that of Hitchcock). Instead, shallow critics and film buffs concentrate on his borrowing Hollywood narrative and so never appreciate him as a distinctive figure of late-20th-century filmmaking. This is proof of cultural illiteracy in our technically advanced, supposedly sophisticated age; as such, it’s a sociological problem.

Too much time is wasted on De Palma’s defending his misunderstood movies and answering philistine charges about fame, sexism, and brutality.

Today, in “the Golden Age of Television,” filmmakers are no longer regarded as visual artists; neither are they respected for their social perception. De Palma demonstrates an even worse situation: celebrating a filmmaker as a celebrity. Emphasis on behind-the-scenes gossip (such as the story of De Palma bilking Paramount out of money before eventually turning down an offer to direct Flashdance) ignores the possibility of serious artistry. De Palma says: “You’re battling a very difficult system [in Hollywood], and all the values of that system are the opposite of what goes into making good original movies.”

Failing to clarify De Palma’s Godardian–Langian–Wellesian challenge to the politics and morality of the Hollywood system makes De Palma a documentary for political naïfs and fame-whore pseudo-cinephiles. It is conceived to please millennial careerophiles.

Dubious hero worship ignores how De Palma was spurred by political and aesthetic curiosity. He recounts his career journey, yet never gets to the nitty-gritty of the genre revisionism that was the hallmark of his films and those of the Seventies directors he name-checks. (“There was Marty [Scorsese], and then there was George [Lucas] and Francis [Coppola] and Steven [Spielberg]. What we did in our generation will never be duplicated.”)

“You’re always being criticized against the fashion of the day” is De Palma’s most insightful observation, yet he seems incapable of the intellectualizing needed to refute those lingering accusations of “misogyny” by viewers who are still so accustomed to seeing women as victims that they ignore how De Palma depicts their individuality and camaraderie in Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and his late masterpiece Femme Fatale.

#share#The creator of those films needed not a collection of flashback clips but a study of the ingenious sequences that prove De Palma worthy of serious attention. (Godard himself saluted The Fury’s chase scene, but if any single image in American movies distills our current political state, it is the shot of Nancy Allen crying for help before an American flag in Blow Out.) Unfortunately, De Palma was made by social climbers Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, who seem more interested in De Palma’s career tales: “Being a director is being a watcher; you have a lot of egos in the room, and you have to sort of watch how they interact with each other.”

An honest, sensitive, instinctive response to De Palma’s movies won’t be found in this documentary.

As evidenced by the numerous times De Palma expostulates “Holy mackerel,” the filmmakers show no respect for his aged juvenility, his apparent physical frailty, or the pain of family dysfunction that De Palma hints at repeatedly. They don’t know how to psychoanalyze — or sympathize — and so they settle for shabby self-flattery, as when De Palma says he has something in common with their own petty careers: “I’m returning to the kind of movie you guys are making.” Ha! They’re not counterculture; they are hipster culture.

This film lowers De Palma’s reputation to the anti-intellectualism and insipid “professionalism” common to today’s untutored filmmakers. Judgment of De Palma’s status comes down to opinions split between acolytes of Pauline Kael (De Palma’s longtime mainstream defender) and sycophantic film bloggers who, in the Tarantino age, appreciate only violence and self-referential technique. Rather than presenting De Palma as a figure from Sixties counterculture, this film simply appeals to those who are looking to attach themselves to a vaunted cultural position. When De Palma briefly mentions critics, there’s a cut to Village Voice headlines (“Derivative”/“Dazzling”) juxtaposing an Andrew Sarris pan with a J. Hoberman panegyric.

#related#An honest, sensitive, instinctive response to De Palma’s movies won’t be found in this documentary. There is no understanding of De Palma’s political through-line from Greetings (1968 — still America’s only anti-draft film) and the Vietnam tragedy Casualties of War (1989) to his anti–Iraq War stumble with Redacted (2007). There’s superficial examination of the political background in the student-and-black-radical comedy Hi, Mom! (1970), the paranoid Chappaquiddick-based Blow Out (1981), the hip-hop and drug-war mythology of Scarface (1983), the race-and-gentrification satire in Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and the humanist odyssey Mission to Mars (2000).

All the social, political, and emotional issues of those films are felt in The Fury, an Expressionist thriller and much more: a potent distillation of the personal and political conflicts that define De Palma’s sensibility and linger in the social miasma of the new millennium. De Palma always works on his sexual and political subconscious. As with any movie artist, every film is political, every film is a public address. But De Palma offers a layman’s inquiry, not a critic’s nor an expert’s. That the makers of this documentary could let De Palma disparage The Fury proves they’re inadequate to appreciate his movies at all.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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