AFS Essential Cinema presents the early films of Brian De Palma
It's been 40 years since cinematic enfant terrible, postmodern jokester, and aspiring "American Godard" Brian De Palma appeared on the American film scene. And while that time has seen the deification of most of his New Hollywood rebel buddies from the early Seventies, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, De Palma has remained mostly outside of the mainstream, an avant-gardist who – despite the occasional big-studio hit in the Eighties and Nineties (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Scarface), not to mention the occasional legendary flop (The Bonfire of the Vanities) – has spent the better part of his career with one foot planted firmly in the arthouse.
In 2007, De Palma released his 36th film, the Iraq war drama Redacted, and was awarded the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. The critical success of that film aside, it's still De Palma's early movies, those from the late Sixties and the Seventies, that will ensure his legacy when he's gone, that show just how revolutionary the man once was as a filmmaker and how rebellious he still can be, especially when placed alongside his more successful, more socially acceptable contemporaries. (Quick: The Departed or The Black Dahlia – which is more likely to show up in your parents' DVD collection, and which is more likely to already be forgotten?) Like some precocious teenager grown old but not up, De Palma still delights in popping balloons, a scattergun ironist who's just as interested in upending the expectations of moviegoers as he was 40 years ago.
Starting this Tuesday, the Austin Film Society is presenting First Blood: The Early Films of Brian De Palma as part of its ongoing Essential Cinema Series. The program includes De Palma's first released feature, Murder à la Mod, released in 1968; campy cult-classic Phantom of the Paradise; and his 1976 breakout hit, Carrie, which momentarily launched the director into that rarefied land then being colonized by Lucas and Spielberg before he vanished happily again into the absurdist, Kirk Douglas-starring haze of The Fury.
De Palma's signature fascination with the conventions and techniques of filmmaking, and his irrepressible desire to exploit those conventions and techniques and then turn them on their heads, can be seen all over the AFS program. First and foremost, De Palma was and is a film fan, a great lover of the French New Wave (particularly Godard, with his handheld self-awareness and ironic appreciation of film's pervasive cultural influence) and Alfred Hitchcock (a constant experimenter who wasn't afraid to show the gears grinding behind the scenes of a movie as a way to blur the line between reality and fantasy) who wears his infatuation with film way out on his sleeve for everyone to see. Not for Mr. De Palma the way of the seamlessly imagined immersive reality.
Take series opener Murder à la Mod, the story of a naive woman who falls in love with a moody experimental filmmaker/photographer and finds herself dragged into a world of sexual deviance and murder. The film begins with a series of screen tests, young women auditioning for a movie in which one will play a young woman who's been asked by an experimental filmmaker/photographer to pose nude. The young women auditioning are no more comfortable taking their clothes off on camera than the young woman who they're auditioning to play, and so the first 10 minutes of the film play like a kind of postmodern loop, with the intentions and identities of everyone involved open to interpretation. Are the women merely acting shy to get a role as a woman acting shy, or are they actually too shy to do what they need to do get that role? And who exactly is the man prodding them from behind the camera – is he the experimental director, an actor playing an experimental director, or De Palma himself? Whatever the answers, all the resulting confusion and skepticism leave audiences unsure as to how to react when one of those actresses is (apparently) murdered on set, which is exactly how DePalma wants them.
This manipulation of audience expectation would become a De Palma trademark, the signature of a born prankster taking a step past his heroes by never letting his audience forget it was watching a movie.
It's this devilish reveling in the mechanics of filmmaking that series curator and filmmaker Bryan Poyser says makes De Palma's films so "compulsively watchable, no matter how ridiculous some of them might be. Especially the early movies we're screening, they're all so funny and subversive and playful. De Palma's films can be read as satires of the movies themselves, a big joke that you have to be in on but that, once you are, you can't stop appreciating. He would play around with everything – genres, techniques, even the forms of filmmaking itself." If Hitchcock was unafraid to show the scaffolding behind the "building" of a movie and if Godard was unafraid to make cultural awareness of the movies part of his movies, then credit De Palma with having no fear when it came to blowing up the whole notion of a movie as a self-contained, organic, unconstructed world unto itself that audiences could simply live in for a few hours.
Of course, the number of critics and movie fans who laud De Palma's fearlessness is considerably smaller than those who see his tinkering and irony as so much stylized posturing and bloody, sexualized exploitation. Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why he's spent most of his career on the far edges of industry acceptance.
Which, serendipitously, is the turf he thrives on. Because, as gaudy and entertaining as Scarface is, as brilliant as Sean Connery is in The Untouchables, as much as Mission: Impossible reinvigorated the red-fear tropes of the 1960s and made them palatable to a post-Cold War, explosion-mad, Tom Cruise kind of a world, nothing De Palma has done since getting an invitation to Hollywood compares with the audacity and subversiveness of early no-budget camp classics such as Phantom of the Paradise, a gory, goofy, ridiculous rock & roll update on The Phantom of the Opera that advertised itself as "the Most Highly Acclaimed Horror Fantasy of Our Time" but could probably be more accurately described as the once-and-for-all perfect blending of the nouvelle vague, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, go-go rock sexploitation fantasies, slasher films, and biting cultural satire. Or take Hi, Mom!, in which a Vietnam veteran (played by Robert De Niro) attempts to break into the porn business but gets sidetracked by a radical all-black theatre troupe that terrorizes its white Upper West Side audiences, forcing them into blackface and torturing them with a taste of what life is like on the losing end of the American racial spectrum. Violent, exploitive, unconventional, disrespectful, and deeply contrarian, these early De Palma films weren't just made to get filmgoers to question their lives and their society and their politics; plenty of filmmakers in the early Seventies were doing that. Instead, they forced audiences to question the very way they viewed movies and what they expected from them. They demanded audiences be aware of the effect movies could have on them and doubt everything they'd been shown and would be shown. In De Palma's hands, filmgoers could never trust the movies to supply them with the information they needed or the lessons they craved.
Says Bryan Poyser: "Hi, Mom! is a perfect demonstration of De Palma's approach to filmmaking. Those scenes with the radical theatre group are really disturbing and hard to get through. De Palma shoots them like a documentary, and after a while, you start to wonder if you're watching something that actually exists. But he demands a lot from his audiences. He wants us to be as uncomfortable with the situation as the audience members of the play who are being humiliated and tortured. It's an immersive emotional experience.
"The amazing thing about that sequence is that when the play is over, when all those white people are set free again, they come out of the theatre saying, 'That was so much fun, so fascinating.' So not only do you as the audience feel like you've been raked over the coals along with those theatregoers, but then they turn around and make you feel like the joke's been played on you. Like you were the subject of the experiment all along."
Call him De Palma the Mad Scientist, playing with his audiences, confounding their assumptions, preying on their trust ... and laughing all the while.
AFS Essential Cinema presents First Blood: The Early Films of Brian De Palma on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 7pm at Austin Studios Screening Room (1901 E. 51st) and the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar). (* indicates additional shows at 9pm.) Admission is free for AFS members and $4 for the general public. Advanced tickets encouraged for the Austin Studios screenings. For more info, see www.austinfilm.org.
First Blood: The Early Films of Brian De Palma
Jan. 13: Murder à la Mod(Austin Studios)*
Jan. 17: Greetings (Austin Studios)*
Jan. 20: Hi, Mom! (Alamo)
Jan. 24: Dionysus in 69 (Austin Studios)*
Jan. 27: Sisters (Alamo)
Feb. 3: Phantom of the Paradise (Alamo)
Feb. 10: Carrie (Alamo)