Do you know who Brian de Palma is? Srikanth Srinivasan takes a journey through his works, themes, and the standards he set for a more than a generation of filmmakers in Hollywood. de Palma exhibited a virtuosity seen best in his films' classicism and tonal consistency, making this revisitation nostalgic in parts and awe-inspiring in others.
BRIAN DE PALMA
WHO is he?
American film director and script writer, working since the late Ssixties, and often considered a key member of New Hollywood. Widely acclaimed during the seventies and the eighties, Brian de Palma seems to have fallen out of favour with critics, with his later films receiving responses ranging from lukewarm to negative. Yet, few filmmakers working today in Hollywood exhibit the cinematic virtuosity that parallels his.
WHAT are his films about?
Like David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski, Brian de Palma’s early films are vehemently generic and work with a fixed set of ideas and themes. These early thriller and horror films deal with love and obsession, in which the lead character is interminably haunted by what he has seen or heard. In a way, all these films are about the human senses, and thus about cinema itself, which are the only means through which the characters make sense of the world around them. One of his recent films, Redacted (2007), unfolds as a string of found footages and examines the way we comprehend war.
Brian de Palma is arguably the most Hitchcockian of film directors outside of Hitchcock and his finest films are, at the very least, brilliant demonstrations of Hitchcock’s methods. A typical application could be seen in the way he multiplies spatial and temporal tension using split screens and cross cutting. Another remarkable characteristic of these films is their editing which is suffused with closed eyeline matches and shot reverse shots pairs that crucially serve to strengthen the audience’s identification with the protagonists.
WHY is he of interest?
One of the greatest filmmakers to come out of Hollywood, de Palma’s movies can serve as virtual textbooks for today’s filmmakers, who seem to have swapped classicism and tonal consistency for sit-comical rhythm and instantaneous payoffs. These films are also bridges between classical Hollywood and the postmodern era of filmmaking, wherein citation and referencing do more than parody and pastiche and inflect source material with personal ideas.
WHERE to discover him?
Though not his most celebrated film, Body Double (1984) is perhaps the most cogent summation of de Palma’s early preoccupations. In the film, a small-time actor who discovers his wife’s infidelity becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman living across the street. Body Double is, at heart, a tale about obsession with images, about the need for narratives and the exorcism of personal complexes through these narratives. In short, about the magic of cinema.