Think of Brian De Palma’s first novel — Are Snakes Necessary? — as his COVID-19 movie. Produced under duress, during a period when De Palma was blocked from green-lighted big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, rather like shelter-in-place restrictions, it is as full of movie references as any De Palma film.
Are Snakes Necessary? is also politically charged, continuing the obsession with skullduggery and government suspicion that goes back to De Palma’s earliest films, the anti-draft satire Greetings, and the radical activist/media satire Hi, Mom! This time. modernist De Palma satirizes the very form he essays — the hard-boiled crime novel with its built-in plot twists and duplicitous femme fatales.
Lead character Elizabeth de Carlo follows such puckish De Palma heroines as Grace and Danielle in Sisters and Laure/Lilly in Femme Fatale, where identity folds, multiplies, contrasts, and mirrors. Elizabeth and a mother-daughter duo, Jenny and Fanny, are involved with untrustworthy males: a photographer, a politician, and his political consultant, who variously exploit the women sexually and politically. Elizabeth, de Palma writes, has “innate grace.” She goes by the rule that “knowing how to speak to the animal in the man is half the game.” (She’s like Rebecca De Mornay in Alex Cox’s The Winner, a sign of De Palma’s instinctive cinematic good taste).
Tension and humor, De Palma’s two best tricks, propel the narrative, which deliberately references specific Kennedy and Clinton scandals (although De Palma indulges typical liberal petulance when labeling the offenders “Republicans”). But the villain of the piece, with his gruesome comeuppance, reveals the true political intent of Are Snakes Necessary? It is an apologia for De Palma the (supposedly) sexist pop artist.
This would be unnecessary in a fairer, more erudite era that was not held hostage to #MeToo coercion but, instead, appreciated that De Palma created more memorable and sympathetic female characters in Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale than any female filmmaker. The sops to feminism in Are Snakes Necessary? might be the result of De Palma’s collaborating with his wife, Susan Lehman, a former New York Times editor.
In De Palma’s own field, where his virtuosity has no contemporary parallel, it isn’t likely that he would share the role of auteur with another byline. Lehman, credited as co-author, may be providing cover for De Palma’s usual misunderstood, bad-boy fantasies: “He never thought he could have everything — brains and beauty and sexy and sweet and light and hot — in one package.” Yet the novel’s strict adherence to female empowerment (“the one and only rescuer in Elizabeth’s story has been Elizabeth”) and revenge renders the novel trite. Its stock plotting lacks the larger, cosmic fate that ultimately made Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Casualties of War so powerful and that lifted The Fury, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale into awe-inspiring, cosmic visions.
De Palma’s decision to write a novel supports his brave, hold-out position as a cinéaste who resists television. Before television conquered cinema, especially for the “golden age of cable-TV” generation and today’s streaming culture, there was a concept called “la caméra-stylo” (camera-pen), formulated by critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc to describe filmmaking that was as fluent and expressive as writing. The museum cruising scene of Dressed to Kill fits Astruc’s theory, as does the carefully built final sunlit tableau of Femme Fatale: pure cinema.
Although De Palma finds no literary equivalent to his famous split-screen device in Sisters or even the binocular sequence in Richard Quine’s Pushover that influenced De Palma’s voyeur fetish (which culminated in the noir extravagance of the nighttime sound-recording sequence in Blow Out), he tries writing such effects. Most of it is narrative wind-up. It takes a while before we get to the first movie moment of visual contradiction: “Rogers can’t see the paper, which if he could would stop his heart (not to mention his campaign): in clear bold print, the paper says Paternity Test Results: POSITIVE.” It’s a naughty joke, like Angie Dickinson discovering the venereal-disease health notice in Dressed to Kill combined with Obsession’s incest revelation.
Some moments show De Palma’s media sophistication (“videotaping has the potential to change how we campaign”) and his yearning to make cinema (“I need to feel the rush and shoot it”), especially his reference to The Great Gatsby’s Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, whose bespectacled eyes, on an old, faded billboard, stare down at Gatsby — an ideal De Palma image. He is a Hitchcock buff here: “Nick, crushed by the ending he has orchestrated, drops his camera to his side and looks over the railing” like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. He pays secret homage to Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. And he is his own best critic here: “It all happened in that funny slow-motion way events unfold in the heat of certain moments.”
There’s also some plain good writing:
Rogers has the same general regard for applause. He treats it the way porpoises regard the shiny red balls they balance on their noses, He chases it. He relishes it. He plays it for all it’s worth. Applause is his favorite toy.
Best of all are the last 15 chapters, mostly short, one-page action-filled accounts that evoke De Palma’s suspenseful, contrapuntal crosscut editing style.
The title Are Snakes Necessary? reveals a roué’s phallic embarrassment, which De Palma typically compounds with a film reference: Norman Taurog’s 1942 comedy Are Husbands Necessary? But this lockdown creation commands attention because it also evinces social and cultural change — the shift from De Palma’s counterculture Sixties origins to Millennial resignation. The liberal critique he delivered in his Iraq War movie Redacted was a shocking failure, so now, following the wonderfully perceptive but hardly seen Domino, De Palma is a cinema outsider, left spinning a handwritten tale about “the world of politics — of smoke and mirrors and endless spin . . . lies.”
Are Snakes Necessary? is available from Hard Case Crime publishers.